South Africa's president was expected to take a stronger line with Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, but Mugabe's hand was stronger than Zuma expected.
South Africa has the potential and the desire to lead in Africa. It has an economy far larger than any in southern Africa and an advanced and powerful military. However, South Africa's failure to resolve the 'political crisis' across the Limpopo River in Zimbabwe has left many doubting its capability as an effective regional leader.
Western observers deemed Zimbabwe in a 'crisis' state from 2000. South African president Thabo Mbeki - a firm advocate of African solutions to African problems - reassured the West that, as an African and given the democratic credentials of his country, he was the only international leader with the legitimacy and moral authority to restore order, advance democracy and protect human rights in the neighbouring country. In doing so, he played the role of chief mediator in the bringing ZANU-PF and the two factions of the MDC to the negotiating table after the 2008 elections, which resulted in the Government of National Unity (GNU) and the Global Political Agreement (GPA), which stipulated key reforms.
In his attempt to resolve the 'crisis', Mbeki stressed dialogue and non-intervention in Zimbabwe's internal politics, an approach that was dubbed - often in negative light - 'quiet diplomacy'. This cautious approach not only attracted dismay from the West who wanted to see tougher action on Mugabe's Zimbabwe, but was also discredited by local opposition groups, who openly expressed their frustration. Most vocal was Zimbabwe's main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which accused the South African president of bias. Leaked diplomatic reports in 2010 appeared to confirm these fears, highlighting Mbeki's bias towards Zimbabwe's incumbent president and his party.
It was in this context that much hope was placed on Mbeki's successor, Jacob Zuma, to lead from the front in coaxing Zimbabwe towards greater democracy, including Zimbabwe's then-Prime Minister and leader of the larger MDC faction Morgan Tsvangirai. When Zuma came to the post in 2009, commentators assured he would opt for a tougher stance towards President Mugabe.
It was Zuma who led the facilitation team in Zimbabwe which was responsible for drawing up a roadmap to the 2013 elections. Zuma appeared to make it clear that the reforms promised by Mugabe to the SADC under the GPA, which would enforce the separation of state and ZANU-PF institutions, would be completed before elections could be called. When the US President Barack Obama visited South Africa in June this year, he praised Zuma's efforts for having presented "an opportunity... to move into a new phase where perhaps Zimbabwe can finally achieve all its promise."
However, when Mugabe insisted on holding the elections on July 31 without the completion of these reforms, Zuma could do little. The elections were held amidst allegations of vote rigging and voter intimidation, and Mugabe emerged victorious.
Despite such concerns, President Zuma was among the first to congratulate Mugabe for his victory and encourage the opposition to accept the outcome, putting him at odds with those in the country and the international community who questioned the results. On 20 August, Zuma officially concluded his facilitation role, apparently drawing a line under the election and five more years of ZANU-PF rule.
ZANU-PF strikes back
Those who were disappointed at Zuma for his apparent failings in Zimbabwe would do well to remember the number of cards that Mugabe holds against the - apparently more powerful - South African president.
Firstly, Zuma, as regional leader, has considerable responsibility to keep together the main regional body: the SADC. When Zuma continued to press for political and electoral reforms earlier this year, Mugabe decided to play this card, upping the stakes and threatening to pull Zimbabwe out of the SADC unless Zimbabwe was left without interference.
Zuma was understandably wary of being blamed for the weakening or breaking-up of the main regional body. Mugabe's apparent willingness to undermine the stability of the SADC was a gamble that paid off, and Zuma backtracked on his attempts to extract further concessions on reforms from ZANU-PF, apparently accepting the 31 July election date.
Secondly, Mugabe and ZANU-PF were in no mood to compromise. Extreme positions were taken on a number of issues with the aim of undermining any meaningful negotiations. For example, Mugabe insisted that all sanctions against the ZANU-PF elite be lifted before any political and electoral reforms could take place - a decision that was out of Zuma's hands.
Diplomatic decorum gone to the dogs
Mugabe and ZANU-PF also deliberately disregarded diplomatic decorum as part of their strategy to undermine Zuma and his facilitation team through a war of words.
At the forefront of this was Jonathan Moyo, recently appointed Minister of Information in Mugabe's new cabinet. In the state-owned Sunday Mail newspaper, Moyo attacked Zuma, labelling the South African president as "erratic". He added, "The problem with Zuma now is that his disconcerting behaviour has become a huge liability, not only to South Africa, but to the rest of the continent." Admittedly, he was later reprimanded by Zimbabwean Vice President Joice Mujuru for his comments.
Zuma's international relations advisor, Lindiwe Zulu, was subjected to such attacks from even higher up the ZANU-PF circles. She was described by Mugabe as "stupid and idiotic" and a "street woman" when she publicly expressed concern with the pace of political and electoral reforms. Zuma responded by censuring Zulu for "jumping the gun" in criticising the electoral preparations, which made clear that Mugabe's vocal attacks on interference were having an effect across the border.
Reportedly, the South African facilitation team came to expect a chilly reception each time they visited Harare and often found their efforts blocked by a lack of cooperation from ZANU-PF. On one occasion, a SADC meeting facilitated by South Africa had to be cancelled after Mugabe refused to attend.
Backing the winning horse
What made Zuma so susceptible to Mugabe throwing his weight? Ultimately, it was because the pillar upon which President Zuma's policy seemed to rest was unable to bear weight. Initially, the South African President was banking on the belief that the opposition had genuine chances of unseating ZANU-PF in the July elections. But once it became increasingly likely that ZANU-PF would remain in power after August 2013, the South African president was forced to consider his position for the sake of his future relations with the leaders of Zimbabwe.
This is particularly true in the run up to South Africa's 2014 elections. President Mugabe's party has already shown itself capable of inflicting damage on Zuma's bid for re-election, by providing ideological inspiration and, allegedly, financial support to the Economic Freedom Fighters, a new explicitly anti-Zuma party set up by former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema. Indeed, the African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General has accused ZANU-PF of influencing the thinking and actions of Malema and Malema frequently admits that he gets his inspiration from Mugabe, adding that South Africa should learn from Zimbabwe when it comes to issues such as land reform.
The upcoming election has forced Zuma to put his self-preservation above second-order interests such as the spreading of democracy and protection of human rights in other countries. Despite his genuine interest in pushing for reform in Zimbabwe, the South African president was arguably forced to abandon his tough stance when his personal interests were threatened. Once it became clear who the likely electoral winner was going to be, Mugabe's power at the negotiating table rocketed and, arguably, Zuma had no choice but to back the winning horse.
Simukai Tinhu has a background in International relations (London School of Economics) and African Politics (University of Oxford and University of Cambridge). His interests are risk analysis with a special focus on African countries.