Finding a diplomatic way out of the Zimbabwe (human rights and governance) fog, again

Dear Colleagues,

Last week, 13 August 2020, I was invited by the Humanities Research Institute of Africa (HRIA) to share my thoughts on a diplomatic mission sent by South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa to Zimbabwe to seek a better understanding of what is taking place in the country amid national and international cries against reported cases of jailing of journalists, human rights defenders, opposition politicians and clamping down on freedoms of expression (including media) and assembly by the State under the guise of implementing COVID-19 control measures and regulations.

Please find below my response.


Good evening colleagues!

I want to thank the conveners of this space for inviting me to share my thoughts on South Africa’s latest diplomatic push to resolve the Zimbabwe crisis and debates on the mandate of South Africa’s latest diplomatic mission to Harare. My name is Paul Sixpence. I did post graduate studies in Human Rights at the Central European University in Hungary. I am currently working with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) in Kampala, Uganda as a Senior Minority Rights Fellow. Prior to this appointment, I worked as a Programme Officer for the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) in Durban, South Africa. Years back, in my penultimate undergraduate year, I did research around the 2008 Global Political Agreement (GPA) that was brokered by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). The research was commissioned by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. The problem statement of my research then, sought to understand the process through which the three main political parties who were signatories to that agreement came to an understanding noting their conflicting political ideologies.

Ooops, I almost forgot something. Between 2009 – 2013 I am one of those who believed that we were in a transitory phase!


In his brief and straight to the point invitation note, my brother Khanyile asked me to speak to three questions:

(1) Provide conceptual clarity on South Africa’s diplomatic mission to Harare? In other words, were President Ramaphosa’s envoys meant to also meet other stakeholders on this particular trip apart from President Mngangagwa?

(2) Can Zimbabweans solve their own mess?

(3) If not, what should be South Africa’s role and at what cost to it?

I will address the three questions from the perspective of a conflict resolution practitioner and my experience working on conflict management and transformation in Africa. I will seek as much as possible to engage in a practical and constructive dialogue with the ultimate aim of engaging you (fellow colleagues on this platform) in a dialogue to peacefully resolve the Zimbabwe crisis. I promise also not to belabor you with long responses that will otherwise turn this potential humdinger of a stokvella to ‘umabhija.’ So for today’s dialogue, we are in this together and would very much appreciate your engagement.

(1) Provide conceptual clarity on South Africa’s diplomatic mission to Harare? In other words, were President Ramaphosa’s envoys meant to also meet other stakeholders on this particular trip apart from President Mngangagwa?

In my understanding of how diplomatic missions of this nature are dispatched, I am of the view that the envoys did not have a brief at this stage (for their initial meeting with President Mnangagwa) to meet other stakeholders. Envoys are dispatched with a special message to the next President. They can only start meeting other ‘stakeholders’ once they get a mandate to do so, in this case, it will be President Mnangagwa giving his counterpart (President Ramaphosa) to intervene and facilitate ‘talks’ in Zimbabwe.

I think the confusion on the brief of the envoys emanated from the statement that was issued by the Presidency in South Africa, which intimated that the envoys were to meet President Mnangagwa and ‘other stakeholders.’ At this stage of any diplomatic mission aimed at resolving conflict, an envoy cannot meet other stakeholders, since they would not have received the mandate from the other head of State to intervene. That is how diplomacy works. Without ‘casting aspersions’ on the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) through their head of mission in Zimbabwe, I think they made ‘a meal of it,’ by asking various groups (stakeholders) to be on ‘standby’ for a possible meeting with the envoys. This could have been out of excitement. South Africa at that level gets excited when they are dealing with Zimbabwe.

It is also important to note here that in line with regional solidarities, it is highly unlikely that South Africa will seek to assist ‘Zimbabweans’ to address the crisis on it’s own without having SADC and the AU involved. This is premised on the simple argument that Zimbabwe is ‘temperemental.’ Again, when I did my research on the 2008 Global Political Agreement, I learned that ‘international players’ are always consulted by ‘Zimbabwean stakeholders’ in resolving the conflict.

Again, it is important to highlight here that, based on information received from reliable contacts close to South Africa’s latest mission to Zimbabwe, that South Africa by it’s own admission violated standing diplomatic engagement protocol. I am advised that, in previous engagements of this nature, DIRCO will seek approval from the embassy of the country that they wish to send a mission of this nature to meet other stakeholders during the course of that mission. In this case, South Africa did not do so. Instead, they sought to change a bilateral meeting into a fact finding mission. South Africa acted as if she had been mandated by an African inter-governmental body such as SADC or AU to carry out a fact finding mission to Harare. Further, I am advised that Harare views the latest diplomatic push by South Africa as a bilateral engagement rather than an intervention to address the deepening political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe.

(2) Can Zimbabweans solve their own mess?

The simple answer to this question is YES! But the bigger question, which is difficult to answer is HOW? Noting my ‘peculiarities’ and ‘sensitivities’ due to my current attachment to a UN diplomatic office, I will not answer that question but will leave it to you and other fellow citizens to answer. Nevertheless, it will suffice to say that the peaceful resolution of any conflict is recommended and encouraged.

Politically, the dynamics in Zimbabwe are way different from the situation that led to the 2008 Global Political Agreement. The opposition is weak and divided. It has less representation in parliament. On the other hand, it is overtly clear (if it was opaque on the road to the GPA) that the State is militarized and is more ‘inward’ looking.

As Zimbabwe, we have been in a state of what Antonio Gramsci termed the ‘passive revolution’ for a ‘long’ time now. The continued decay of the political and socio-economic situation in Zimbabwe, has brought about what William Zartmann (2001) terms the ‘ripe moment.’ This is a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ that calls for the need to resolve the conflict. Presently, Zimbabwe is hurting EVERY Zimbabwean across the political and class divide. The situation in Zimbabwe is also hurting the region. It’s not only hurting South Africa but the southern Africa region. I doubt if Zartmann ever imagined when he coined his concepts of ‘a ripe moment’ and a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ in resolving conflicts that a State would present a more complex national conflict that has regional dynamics and would occur in the context of a global pandemic (COVID-19).

Ultimately, international diplomacy can only assist to consummate the final resolution of a national conflict subsequent to national actions by the citizenry. Foreign states will not have an ‘obvious’ mandate by virtue of a crisis affecting (spilling over) into their nation / nation-state to intervene and resolve the crisis. The situation in Myanmar is instructive.

(3) If not, what should be South Africa’s role and at what cost to it?

As I have intimated in my earlier responses, the responsibility to fix Zimbabwe lies with Zimbabweans. If we can’t fix it, it is impossible to imagine that South Africa will fix it for us. South Africa is saddled with her own challenges.

At this point, HRIA fellows, I think it is important to ask ourselves, the simple question, when we do face difficulties in our personal lives, do we sub-contract the process of finding solutions to problems that we are facing to third parties? If we have done so, how sustainable have those solutions been? If not, how instructive is it to sit back, think deep, take sacrifices and solve your problems?

I am of the view that our personal lives today as Zimbabweans mirror the State and the State also mirrors our private lives.

Thank You!

Thank you to the conveners and fellow, fellows on this platform for creating this unique space for dialogue and conversation. Through our ideation here, we are shaping the future of Zimbabwe as a nation-state. We are also speaking to the challenges that Zimbabwe faces and positing solutions. It is through platforms like this that we can collectively ideate an ideal future nation-State that will cater for this generation and future generations.

About the author: Paul Sixpence is a Senior Minority Rights Fellow with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights). He is a Zimbabwean human rights activist and also coordinates the minority rights and access to justice project at Centre Stage Media Arts Foundation (CSMA) Zimbabwe. He writes in his own capacity and views expressed here do not reflect the position of his current employers.


Very interesting and educative message

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Thank you John! Hopefully things will work out well in our motherland. Let’s keep the faith and hope.

No doubt faith and hope is there, Paul.