THE INTERVIEW Tichaona Zindoga
South African Ambassador to Zimbabwe Vusi Mavimbela (VM)is packing his bags for home after completing five years as Pretoria’s man here where he oversaw the regional facilitation of inter-party talks in Zimbabwe, which gave birth to the inclusive Government in 2009 and the subsequent general elections in 2013 which replaced the “power sharing” agreement between Zanu-PF and the opposition MDC formations. South Africa, he says, acted in an constructive and fraternal manner in Zimbabwe at a time when Western countries sought regime change. He has worked on other facets on bilateral relations between his country and Harare and he reflected about his stay with our Political Editor Tichaona Zindoga (TZ).
TZ: Cde Ambassador, you have reached the end of your tour of duty in Zimbabwe, what are your reflections on the past years you have been the South African representative here?
VM: Well, I am actually completing five years of my stay this month. It is almost five years to the week and it has been a very eventful and memorable time. I arrived here at a time when there was still the facilitation responsibility that was given to His Excellency President (Jacob) Zuma.
In fact, when I came here one of his briefs to me was that this was one of the tasks that I would have to be seized with. So, when I came here I hit the ground running because that facilitation process was underway and as the ambassador I became the convenor of those facilitation meetings -in other words facilitation meetings between the representatives of President Zuma that were dealing with the issue and President Zuma himself and then the different political parties that were involved in the negotiations. So I was the one who was responsible for convening those meetings both here and in South Africa.
Sometimes I would organise those meetings in South Africa and the different groups would have to fly to South Africa to meet there. But also the facilitation team would come here for those meetings and I would help to convene those meetings.
And on about three occasions President Zuma himself actually came over here to come and meet the different parties. So that was a memorable time and happily that process culminated in the general elections in the country and the rest is history.
TZ: Outside of the political facilitation that you undertook which culminated in the elections and new Government in 2013, what have you been mainly seized with in between?
VM: Well, there were many other political engagements that one was involved in, for instance one of the issues at the time was the campaign for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to be chairperson of the AU Commission and Zimbabwe was at the forefront of that campaign.
So I also facilitated that especially with the Foreign Minister here, (Simbarashe) Mumbengegwi to ensure (the success of) those missions flying all over the African continent and interacting with my own foreign minister in South Africa, to ensure that that campaign was sustained for the period.
Again happily for all of us, especially for us in SADC, because SADC was campaigning for their own appointee, our representative Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to be there. As you know there was a big debate at the time because SADC had not been accorded the opportunity to actually chair the AU Commission. It had always revolved around East Africa and West Africa.
So it was quite a huge task and we were successful in actually campaigning for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. But also one has been involved in a number of other issues including economic trade. I attended several investor conferences in South Africa on Zimbabwe. I have attended several investor conferences here in Zimbabwe.
I have brought here a number of delegations, economic and trade delegations to come to Zimbabwe. As we are speaking now there is actually a trade delegation which is in Bulawayo. I was with them on Monday and Tuesday but on Wednesday they had to leave for Bulawayo. Seeing that I am packing, as you can see I am packing I couldn’t accompany them. They are led by the Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry.
TZ: The question of the economic relations between South Africa and Zimbabwe remains quite topical. Many people point the balance of trade being tilted in South Africa’s favour. Are you convinced you have done enough to improve economic relations between Zimbabwe and South Africa during your tenure?
VM: No, definitely we are not happy with the trade balance between the two countries. As you say it is in favour of South Africa and hugely in favour of South Africa and we don’t like that. We don’t like that for many reasons: firstly we believe that even the South African economy can only grow if the economies of the region all grow then we have got a bigger market for the region.
And as a bigger market you know that we are trying to integrate the whole African continent’s economies. If we move as an integrated and bigger economy in the region to go and integrate with other regions that gives us more strength.
But also as you know we need to develop the economy here. We can’t just be trading and sending goods, we need to industrialise as His Excellency President Mugabe always emphasises on that.
So we always try and emphasise that with South African trade delegations that don’t come here simply looking for a market to sell your goods, try and find partnerships and ask yourself questions. How can we produce the things we produce in South Africa here so that we can create employment in Zimbabwe and the region?
Then, by doing so, you will actually be killing many birds with one stone. Then you also won’t have people leaving Zimbabwe to go to South Africa to look for jobs. If you create industrialisation here you produce goods here.
In that way you also assist other industries. Say you are in the catering business or you manufacture food or process food, you can buy your own things. You can buy your potatoes and tomatoes here and produce your own things. You can produce your own chicken.
For example, if you look at Nando’s which is a South African franchise coming from South Africa, I have had many South Africans coming here to visit me and we go and have Nando’s at Samora Machel. All of them without exception comment that the Nando’s chicken here is better than the chicken in South Africa because your chicken in more organic.
South African chicken is fast-tracked, there are a lot of chemicals it is injected with and they immediately tell the difference. (Zimbabwe’s chicken) is sourced locally and those are the kind of things that we need because then you encourage the industry here to grow.
So there is a lot of work still to be done and these issues of integration and establishing factories here to produce things here. I think it is an ongoing task of SADC in terms of ensuring there is integration.
One of the challenges that I have been faced with in the five years that I was here was that it was the time of the world economic crisis which has been there for some time. This made even the issue of attracting investment to come to Zimbabwe a bit difficult because even the companies are thinking very hard about their investments and so on because the economy generally is bad.
TZ: Have you at some point as a country, South Africa, felt that Zimbabwe was burdening you with economic migrants? Have you felt under pressure or giving up?
VM: No! You see I think I have just made the point. The issue of growing the economies of the region is the responsibility of all of us. If we don’t do that then you will have skewed development in the region and you will have the outflows and the inflows of economic migrants and so on.
It can’t be a burden on South Africa. It is actually a challenge to, say, South Africa as long as you don’t assist, as long as you don’t invest in the region and as long as you don’t build factories and capacity tools to produce goods in this region we are going to have these skewed responsibility.
So it is your responsibility also to make sure that whenever you have the capacity to assist and to build then you must. So it is a challenge.
TZ: One of the nagging questions around the relations between South Africa and Zimbabwe, at least on a social scale, have been incidents of xenophobia. How have you related to that challenge as a country and as the South African representative here?
VM: In fact, that question is related to what I have just said. South Africa has got a responsibility and a challenge to ensure that we grow the economies of the region. Then we can all grow together. As long as South Africa sits back and is comfortable in what we think we have then we going to have those problems because what really starts these issues and these conflicts is the issue of economic refugees.
People moving around trying to struggle for economic resources. So you find poor people struggling against poor people for scarce economic resources instead of growing the cake. If we grow the cake and grow the cake as a region then we won’t have these movements left and right and across the borders and across the rivers.
If there is movement it must be mutually beneficial and reinforce each other. So it is related to exactly that South Africa has to understand that it has got the responsibility to ensure that it grows the bigger cake for the region.
TZ: Politically, it would seem that the relationship between South Africa and Zimbabwe is healthy especially in light of your role in the facilitation you alluded to above. Have you, during your tour of duty, felt other external pressures to behave otherwise? If you recall former president (Thabo) Mbeki stated recently that there were a lot of pressures exerted on South Africa to act in a particular manner. During your tour of duty how have you interacted with those forces?
VM: Our position throughout has been that it doesn’t help anybody to disengage from Zimbabwe. Even when I interact with ambassadors from the European and Western countries here, the point I have always made is that you have to encourage your countries to engage not to disengage. Don’t move away from Zimbabwe, come in and engage, come and invest that is how we are going to be able influence the situation in a positive way.
Come and engage politically don’t disengage. If you try and isolate Zimbabwe because you have got one problem or the other it doesn’t help. These problems these days are solved by actually engaging – and that has been our position all along. So when they come and ask us what is your view and your advice, and they ask us for advice most of the time because we are neighbours and fraternal countries and we have a history, I have always underlined “engage” with Zimbabwe.
Engage politically and engage economically. That is how you are going to make a contribution.
TZ: There have been a lot happening in South Africa politically lately and there are even reports of the US seeking regime change in your country. How should we understand the goings-on in your country now?
VM: I wouldn’t say that I am aware of what you are talking about I am really not aware unless you make a specific example. I am not aware that there is a concerted effort for regime change. I know there is a lot of political contestation both within the governing party the ANC and the other political parties and with the trade unions and so on.
There is a lot of political contestation, differing of opinions and so on and so forth. That is what I observe from where I am right now, I see all the political contestation and not only political but also economic contestation on economic issues.
The trade unions are demanding minimum wages and they are demanding this and that. There is retrenchment and the unions are demanding that workers shouldn’t be retrenched. Big business is closing down some of the mines because of the economic situation and the Government is trying to say no please don’t, you are going to increase unemployment.
But it is all happening in a broad space of political and economic contestation . . . The only time I knew the ANC commented (on US machinations) was on the issue of the AGOA agreement because America was putting conditions on how they could re-engage South Africa only if South Africa does. And I know there was some discomfort in the ANC about that to say that America is playing hardball on this issue whereas they should treat us as equals and we deal as equals.
That is the only part that I know of recently where there was discomfort with the American administration.
TZ: It has been five years in Zimbabwe, where to from here and what lessons can you draw from your tenure?
VM: Well, I am going back to my department, Department of Foreign Relations in Pretoria. I know I am going back there for some retraining and refresher courses then we will take it from there.
What was good among other things about Zimbabwe is that one again was reminded that we all fought for liberation. All these countries fought for liberation. We come from the same history of colonisation and that moving forward we should never forget where we come from. We need to hold hands together even as we move forward because there will be people who will try to reverse what we have gained. So we need to hold hands together and move forward so that we consolidate the gains of the revolution that we all achieved.
So that the relations should not just be on the basis of the economic relations and trade, that relations should not only be at a level of government to government but also that we need to ensure that there is closer interaction of the political parties especially the governing parties that came from liberation to ensure that we reinforce each other, we learn from each other and we enrich each other.
TZ: You have just raised an important point there. Do you think the liberation movement is still relevant in today’s politics from the perspective of the region and global politics?
VM: Definitely, you know that there is from time to time a meeting of the former national liberation movements in the region just to compare notes, to share experiences in government and so on and to say where we can help each other.
You see, for instance, in South Africa the things that the national liberation movement which is the African National Congress set itself to achieve, the things that we said we wanted to achieve, we haven’t achieved. So we are still relevant in achieving those things.
I imagine that in Zimbabwe you also haven’t achieved everything you wanted to achieve. You still want to transform your society, you want to empower your people and that was a goal of the national liberation movements.
As national liberation movements our manifestos were saying we want to do this and do that and we haven’t really achieved that. In our case we talk of the national democratic revolution that means even the revolution in transforming the economy. We haven’t really achieved that, so we believe that because of that reason we are still relevant.