Open for Business – but not Democracy: Zimbabwe’s Foreign Policy under Mnangagwa

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In late November 2017 Zimbabwe’s, securocrats replaced the nonagenarian Robert Gabriel Mugabe with his long-time confidante Emmerson Mnangagwa, declaring Zimbabwe ‘open for business’. Economic diplomacy sought to normalise relations with Brussels, London and Washington. Correspondingly, there were hopes that the end of Mugabe’s rule would bring about some improvement in human and political rights domestically and greater opportunity for Western investment.

Sadly, our new article, Zimbabwe’s Foreign Policy Under Mandangagwa, demonstrates that hopes for a new era were misplaced. Despite Mnangagwa being less prone to theatricality than his predecessor, there have been few if any changes in Zimbabwe’s political trajectory. A deepening economic crisis combined with a brutal crackdown on the government’s domestic opponents has resulted in many disappointments.

While the government likes to claim it is open for business, it is clearly not open for democracy – and even where business is concerned the key question is “open for whom?”.

Relations with SADC

Alliances between former liberation movements have always shaped SADC’s regional approach to Zimbabwe. The Mugabe regime could rely on the solidarity of the member states (except Botswana). Nonetheless, the more Zimbabwe began to parody a failed state, the more the ageing Mugabe became an embarrassment. It was this legacy that Mnangagwa initially sought to address by making visits in early 2018 to Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), while receiving South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa in Harare. Mnangagwa was also welcomed in Botswana by former president Ian Khama, a former vocal critic of Mugabe. His successor Mokgweetsi Masisi visited Zimbabwe shortly thereafter.  

Open displays of solidarity emphasised that both the AU and SADC remained tolerant of Zimbabwe’s domestic politics. Both organizations had been happy to gloss over the military’s de facto displacement of Mugabe as an unconstitutional change of government; likewise, they endorsed the dubious election results returning ZANU-PF to power at the end of July 2018. The violence which erupted in response by an electorate which felt cheated was generously overlooked.  

SADC’s annual summit in Dar es Salaam in 2019 demanded an end to Western sanctions. Ramaphosa had been vocal in this cause at the World Economic Forum in Davos.  But the continued openly repressive nature of the regime did not make loyalty easier.

Although eager for relations to remain cordial, South Africa despatched envoys to Harare in August 2020 to press restraint upon the Mnangagwa government. The regime was responding to its latest crisis by a massive crackdown on opponents. An already devastated economy had been plunged into further distress by Covid-19, with up to 800,000 of Zimbabwe’s still-resident population said to be on the verge of starvation. However, when the South Africans met with Mnangagwa on 9 August 2020, they were subjected to a presidential harangue and refused permission to meet with the opposition. A subsequent mission, despatched by the ANC rather than the South African government, was similarly shoddily treated. However, although South African patience may be wearing thin, SADC has preferred to officially ignore the crisis by remaining silent. But while ‘business as usual’ translates into continued inter-regime solidarity, it does not translate into increased economic collaboration.

The West and Sanctions

In response to the abuse of human rights, the US and EU imposed sanctions upon individuals and companies close to the government. This provided Mugabe’s regime with the opportunity to blame its economic woes upon the West. This mantra was echoed by Mnangagwa, who decried sanctions as western attempts to bring about ‘regime change’.

Unimpressed by the rhetoric, the US extended restrictive measures against targeted individuals and companies in August 2018. In March 2019, US sanctions were renewed under the National Emergencies Act. These apply to 141 individuals, as well as some 56 companies.

In contrast, the EU demonstrated more willingness to re-engage. In February 2019, EU foreign ministers agreed that there would be no sanctions imposed on members of the government, although measures sanctioning certain persons linked to the previous regime would remain in place. In October 2019 the EU announced another aid package, bringing financial support during the year to 67.5 million Euro, totalling 287 million Euro since 2014, this making the EU Zimbabwe’s biggest donor. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU added another 14.2 million Euro humanitarian assistance in 2020.

The changes in EU strategy were downplayed by Harare, and Mnangagwa continued to blame the West for sanctions he compared with cancer.  Given its concessions, the EU was not impressed. Responding to criticism at an anti-sanctions day march in October 2019 it declared: “Zimbabwe is not where it is because of the so-called sanctions, but years of mismanagement of the economy and corruption”.

Similarly, the US Ambassador dismissed “any responsibility for the catastrophic state of the economy and the government’s abuse of its own citizens”. Instead, State Security minister Owen Ncube was added to the sanctions list for leading state-sanctioned human rights abuses under the new dispensation. Thereafter, too, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Jim Risch called upon SADC members to “focus their energies on supporting democracy, not kleptocratic regimes”, which led to Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Moyo threatening to cut diplomatic ties with Washington.

In sum, Mnangagwa’s approach to the sanctions issue has failed to bring any reward. Rather than building on the EU’s concessions and perhaps driving a wedge between the EU and the US, it appears to have reinforced rather than narrowed polarities.

Return to the Commonwealth?

Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth for human rights violations related to the presidential elections and the “fast track” land reform in 2002. In December 2003, Mugabe withdrew Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth before the suspension could be extended. On his arrival in power, Mnangagwa expressed his wish that Zimbabwe would re-join the Commonwealth, apparently hoping that this would accelerate the removal of US sanctions and the few remaining EU measures.

The UK does not have the unilateral power to determine membership of the Commonwealth. Nonetheless, its views remain highly influential. It was therefore significant that when the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) took place in April 2018, the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson met his Zimbabwean counterpart at a side event, this led to a statement that the UK would support Zimbabwe’s re-entry to the Commonwealth in expectation that a new Zimbabwe would arise and that the government would deliver “the free and fair elections the people of Zimbabwe deserve”.

However, the prospects of Zimbabwe re-joining the body were soon dashed by the regime’s violent reaction to the protests which followed the elections in July 2018. In early February 2019 the UK’s Africa Minister Harriet Baldwin stated that British government would no longer support Zimbabwe’s bid for readmission. This triggered an angry response from Mnangagwa, who riposted that the application was submitted to the Commonwealth Secretariat and not to the UK. Subsequently, he met with Patricia Scotland, the Commonwealth Secretary General, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September 2019 to expedite the process. However, although Foreign Minister, Sibusiso Moyo, subsequently reached out to the Modi Government in India to back its re-entry into the Commonwealth, no progress is yet evident.

The Ally in the East

The deterioration of Zimbabwe’s relations with the West had coincided with growing Chinese interest in the resources the African continent had to offer for its own rapidly expanding industries, as an opportunity for exporting know-how and labour for public works and as a market for its manufactured goods. Zimbabwe’s growing isolation from the West offered a convenient entry point and China soon emerged as a reliable partner. However, China’s greater involvement was spurred less by solidarity than by self-interest.

China had become Zimbabwe’s top export market in 2015, accounted for the largest share (74 per cent) of foreign direct investment and had promised a US$ four billion aid and investment package. In addition, it had developed close ties with the Zimbabwean army, selling it weapons ranging from small arms to jet fighters in addition to funding the new National Defence College.

China had become increasingly concerned about Mugabe’s indigenization policy. Mnangagwa’s elevation to the presidency may have received China’s blessing as the best of all the available options. Nonetheless, strains were soon to appear when it became increasingly apparent that Zimbabwe was unable to service its debts. What particularly rankled in Beijing was that Zimbabwe’s incapacity to pay its dues was deemed to be an outcome of the government’s misappropriation or misuse of Chinese funds. Accordingly, there was need to tighten controls. This was to culminate in the signing of a currency swap deal in January 2020 following a visit to Harare by Chinese foreign affairs minister Wang Yi.

Critics of China’s growing involvement in Zimbabwe liken it to a new colonialism and criticise the Look East Policy as merely furthering the interests of the political elite. However, China has also voiced criticism. Its embassy in Harare issued a statement in mid-2019, stressing that development relies mainly on a country’s own efforts and expressed “hope that the Zimbabwean side will continue to create a more favourable environment for all foreign direct investment, including Chinese enterprises”. Like others, Chinese companies in the last instance share an interest in the rule of law as a means of protecting their investments and enhancing the business options. While the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative had been welcomed in Zimbabwe as of potential benefit to the local economy’s infrastructure, current indications suggest that China might have shifted priorities away from increased engagements in the continent as a result of the impact of Covid 19 on the global economy.

Conclusion: No stability, no money, few friends?

Under Mnangagwa, foreign and economic policy combined around the search for new investments and the ending (or easing) of sanctions by the US and EU. However, Mnangagwa’s hopes of re-orienting Zimbabwe’s foreign policy have been confounded by his government’s own actions. Its repressive response to mounting economic and political crisis has increased rather than diminished its chances of overcoming its isolation. The more that the Mnangagwa government fails to engage democratically with its own citizens, the more it will negate any prospect of re-engagement with the West.

Zimbabwean foreign policy remains locked in the parameters of recent times past: looking to regional solidarity, estranged from the West, and increasingly dependent upon China, its most powerful friend. Yet China is a country with its own very clearly defined interests, and history may well prove that these do not align with those of the government and people of Zimbabwe. Nor does the ‘not see, not hear, not speak’ approach by SADC and the wider AU member states translate beyond political loyalty into investments into the economy.

Just as much as its predecessor under Mugabe, the Mnangagwa government has a contempt for human and civil rights, democracy and law, and seems to hope if not to believe that repression will create a more attractive business environment.

Henning Melber is Extraordinary Professor, Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria, Senior Research Associate, The Nordic Africa Institute Uppsala, and Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Commonwealth Studies/Centre for Advanced Study at the University of London.

Roger Southall is Professor Emeritus in Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand and Professorial Research Associate, School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. 

This is a modified short version of our article “Zimbabwe’s Foreign Policy Under Mandangagwa”, Journal of Asian and African Studies, published online 12 January 2021 at

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