South Africa’s ruling party says it is taking an active role on the continent, a pronouncement that comes amid conflicts in Mali, Nigeria, Congo, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Conflict could come much closer to home later this year with what is likely to be a contentious election in Zimbabwe.
For decades, South Africa’s apartheid system kept the nation on the sidelines of continental politics. The African Union was on the side of the then-banned African National Congress, which fought racist white rule.
Today, the ANC is South Africa’s ruling party, and has a streak of dominating national elections since the nation’s first democratic vote in 1994. The party is also behind the push for South Africa to take a more active role as the continent’s economic powerhouse and its most stable democracy.
But the nation’s most pressing international issue is the one closest to home: its northern neighbor, Zimbabwe. Critics say the two countries relationship could cause problems for South Africa’s dealings with the rest of the continent and its many entrenched leaders.
Zimbabwe has been ruled since its 1980 independence by President Robert Mugabe. In recent years, Mugabe has been slapped with international sanctions for using political violence against those who oppose his ZANU-PF party. He also been accused of driving the economy of his once-prosperous nation into the ground.
That economic collapse and political intimidation has prompted hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans to flee to neighboring South Africa.
South African President Jacob Zuma’s adviser on international affairs, Lindiwe Zulu, said the ANC will continue to stand by ZANU-PF because of its history as a liberation party.
“The ANC will continue to have the relationship that it has always had with ZANU-PF," said Zulu. "This is the question that is always asked: are you not in contradiction when on the one hand as government you are facilitating the process taking Zimbabwe forward, on the other hand, you have an African National Congress that even says, ‘We will support ZANU-PF when they request for support in terms of sharing of ideas, in terms of elections?’”
That closeness between the two parties, she said, has enabled South African negotiators to speak freely and critically with Zimbabwean officials behind closed doors.
She said the region will hold a special summit about Zimbabwe in June, before scheduled presidential elections. Mugabe, who is 89, is running for another term.
A spokesman for the South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance, Mmusi Maimane, said his party does not support Zimbabwe’s ruling party, either in theory, as the ANC does, or in practice.
He said the ANC’s support for ZANU-PF effectively translates to South African government support for the regime.
“I think the ANC must not try and force South Africans into believing that they have never been guilty in the past of conflating state and party," said Maimane. "And in fact, there is evidence domestically where the ANC uses state resources for their own party, political activities. So for them to argue a separation of state and [party] in this particular instance is particularly disingenuous.”
ANC officials say they are hopeful Zimbabwe’s elections will be free and fair. Zimbabwe's last elections in 2008 degenerated into violence, most of it by ZANU-PF supporters against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The resulting disputed polls forced Mugabe to form a coalition government, which ZANU-PF has made clear it wants to end.