South Africa insists on a transitional and not unity gov’t in Zimbabwe

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An echo of Zimbabwe’s past is increasingly being viewed as the only peaceful solution left to save the country from itself.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has been the southern African region’s appointed Zimbabwe mediator for a year, is now calling for a transitional government.

South Africa’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Ronnie Mamoepa, said in a statement on 30 June that “[President Robert Mugabe’s] ZANU-PF and the [opposition] MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] must enter into negotiations which will lead to the formation of a transitional government that extricates Zimbabwe from its current political challenges.”

Transitional is not unity

A transitional government, also called a transitional authority, was often confused with a government of national unity (GNU), but was a completely different political animal, said Cheryl Hendricks, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies, a political think-tank based in Pretoria, South Africa.

“Transitional governments, reached through a negotiated settlement, are usually tasked with drafting a widely acceptable constitution and to create the environment and instruments for a free and fair election that will determine representation in a future government,” Hendricks said.

Zimbabwe is dominating the African Union summit at the Egyptian coastal resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, after Mugabe claimed victory in the second round of voting for a president in a violent election process roundly condemned as flawed, even among the few African election observers permitted to monitor it.

The specific use of the term “transitional government” by South Africa, rather than a GNU, which has also been mooted recently, is an indication of Zimbabwe’s despair, both political and economic.

“This is one of the most astounding economic disasters in a peacetime economy in history,” Jeffrey Sachs, an independent economist and special advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said on the sidelines of the AU summit.

Caretaker government

Hendricks said there were three main differences between a transitional authority and a GNU: firstly, a “transitional government is a caretaker government”, established in the absence of a legitimate government, and could be comprised of appointed officials, politicians and civil society members, Hendricks said.

The second defining characteristic was that a transitional authority enjoyed a limited mandate to create a new constitution, and provided the necessary space to hold elections for a GNU, which governed under an accepted constitution.

Lastly, the time-frame of a transitional government was “short, versus indefinite” in the case of a GNU. “In Zimbabwe the constitution is contested – there appears to be little consensus on the norms, values, priorities and practices that should guide the country,” she said.
“There are high levels of abuse of state power, widespread violence, and the economy is in tatters. We primarily have two polarised parties, each asserting their legitimate right to rule, without the prospect of settling the dispute amicably through elections in the near future. The prospects of unity, given these conditions, are highly unlikely, and a cobbled-together GNU will be unstable,” Hendricks commented.


The concept of a transitional government is not alien to Zimbabwe as it could be argued that the the country was born under such circumstances after the Lancaster House negotiations in the UK.

In 1965, Ian Smith’s administration made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence and following agreements reached in London in 1979, Britain reasserted its colonial control with Lord Soames installed as Britain’s last colonial Governor for four months to preside over the country’s first democratic elections, which Mugabe won.

UN transitional authorities have been deployed in such fraught countries as East Timor and Cambodia, although many military leaders have come to power on the premise of a transitional authority intent on restoring democracy, only to rule indefinitely.

Such pitfalls as the military taking advantage of a political vacuum meant that the formation of a transitional government required “very clear time-frames” and specifics regarding its make-up, Hendricks said. Reaching an agreement on setting up a transitional government required that “acceptable mediators need to be brought into the process.”

South Africa could remain the SADC’s mediator, but “to defuse accusations of bias [a frequent claim by the MDC], the number of mediators can be expanded” by bringing in representatives from the AU and the UN, as well as civil society, she said.

For such a solution to work, Hendricks said, a level of political maturity was required. “The transitional government is not about scoring political points or a contestation for power, but a mechanism to facilitate the ushering in of a legitimate government.”


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