The EU sanctions on Zimbabwe have recently been renewed despite no evidence they are working to impact President Mugabe. Through viewing the reasons sanctions were effective in apartheid South Africa, it is clear why Mugabe can easily ignore those imposed on him and his regime.


A London bus supporting the disinvest movement. The global rally behind sanctions in South Africa was one reason they were successful. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Dressed in an extremely lairy green and yellow jacket with a younger image of himself plastered on it, Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe sat next to his wife Grace, wearing a matching dress suit. Mugabe celebrated his 93rd birthday in February. Thirty-seven of those years he has been the ruling power of the nation he and his wife claim love him so much.

The birthday ice-cream cake weighing in at 93kg is shaped like Africa, because even ‘everybody loves him’ on the continent, as reported to Aljazeera. It’s surprising the fragile ingredients of the cake hasn’t melted in the near 30 degree heat of Zimbabwe; as much could be said for Mugabe’s power grip on the country. While the president spends $2.5 million to celebrate turning 93, 93% of the population lives in poverty and without medical needs met due to his disastrous economic policies and corruption. Even with the EU imposing sanctions on not only Mugabe, but also his political and business partners and supporters since 2002, he continues his claim on power and repression of Zimbabwe citizens.

Only a week before the birthday celebrations where Mugabe reiterated he had no desire to step down from presidency, the EU renewed their sanctions on Zimbabwe for another year, until 20 February 2018. This doesn’t seem to faze the power couple, as Mugabe’s wife Grace declares he will be president until he dies, thus continuing the outrage the west is trying to mitigate. Even with his passing, Grace believes his name would be on the ballot paper and Zimbabweans would be voting for his corpse. “That man is irreplaceable, whether we like it or not,” she told local media.

Of the 55 internationally recognised states in Africa, 16 have EU sanctions placed on them, equating to nearly 30% of the continent and nearly half the total amount of sanctions the EU impose worldwide. Currently, it is prohibited to provide technical assistance in relation to military activities in Zimbabwe. It is also prohibited to provide military equipment and related material, including equipment for internal repression, to any person, entity or body in, or for use in the country. The freezing of funds and economic resources has also been undertaken on Mugabe and his party functionaries, as well as travel bans.

The EU’s ‘restrictive measures’ are imposed in order to ‘bring about a change in the policy or conduct of those targeted’ and in order to meet the objectives of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. For Zimbabwe, the main purpose is more to change the actions of the government committing human rights abuses. Having said this, there is no clear observation that these sanctions are having a positive effect.

Apartheid South Africa as an example of what is necessary for sanctions to work

Many point to the ending of apartheid in South Africa as an example of how sanctions could work, though the economic sanctions may not have been the turning point. According to a report by the Swiss National Science Foundation, South Africa’s biggest capital outflow, leading to their debt crisis, was in 1985, one year before the sanctions were in place from the European Community (precursor to the EU). An important factor of the crisis was the economic policy at the time, linked closely to apartheid ideology, rather than any sanctions on trade. Considering the instability in the country at the time, foreign entities were reluctant to invest in the country, even without sanctions.

A more solid and positive example of sanctions being effective in South Africa were the international sporting sanctions imposed. Most notably, South Africa’s invitation to participate in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was revoked due to the team not being racially mixed. As pointed out in a research paper by Alex Laverty, white South Africans were still very much attached to their heritage culture and sporting traditions. Due to this, the sporting sanctions pushed the white population into cultural isolation in South Africa and their longing for acceptance in the international community pushed regime change.

This points to a reason why the EU sanctions don’t appear to be working in Zimbabwe. Unlike the regime of South Africa during apartheid, Mugabe has no reason to be concerned about the sanctions imposed on him. He has no desire to be accepted by the international community and cannot relate to those imposing the sanctions. He particularly doesn’t care about what the world’s white population thinks of him.

Global people power

Another driver for political change in South Africa was a global movement of people calling to disinvest in the country. SOAS University of London Professor of World Politics, Stephen Chan believes there was a genuine concern of apartheid in South Africa because it was legislated in such an inhumane way. “Upright people were thrown into prison, a number of people were shot in the streets and persecuted because of their involvement in [the fight against] apartheid… With such a huge proportion of the country being suppressed, that rankled the international community,” he said. The case of Zimbabwe is at a much smaller scale. Chan outlines “there hasn’t been any encouragement to disinvest” in Zimbabwe.

It’s true there is no equivalent global movement to end the corruption and political repression in Zimbabwe, like there was against the apartheid regime. This may be due to the world politics stage now being overloaded with state crises. “There is a sort of fatigue. To be very fair, there are bigger problems in the world now, everyone is consumed with anxiety of what’s happening in the Middle East,” Chan states honestly.

Sanctions give legitimacy

One of the biggest issues with sanctions is they enable those in power, leading the regime, to gain more legitimacy. Stellenbosch University Associate Professor in Economics, Johan Fourie believes it is easy for Mugabe to blame the West for his citizens being in poverty. He can find reason in his propaganda that Western colonial rulers wish to maintain control of Zimbabwe. Mugabe can point fingers at the West and say ‘it’s because of these sanctions that we are struggling.’ Claiming it’s not something of our own doing, it’s been imposed from the outside,’” Fourie explains. He sees this as also being true for South Africa, with sanctions giving legitimacy to the National Party who had led the nation into economic downturn even before 1986.

Sanctions too weak and without direction

Chan describes another problem; current sanctions in Zimbabwe are too modest, particularly compared to what they were when first imposed. “Currently they’re just there in name,” he said, pointing to the fact they aren’t going to be much driver for change. Overall he sees them as not being very meaningful.

Another point as to why the sanctions are ineffective in Zimbabwe is they seem to lack clear goals. In the case of South Africa, the international community wanted to end the racial segregation and so was able to target specific situations where this was evident, such as racially homogenous sporting teams. The EU’s goal in Zimbabwe is rather broad, in terms of attempting to place pressure on Mugabe to cease his repressive actions on the population. Once again, a successful outcome in this is highly dependent on the ruling power being sympathetic to those imposing the sanctions.

 Political reasoning behind continued use of ineffective soft power

Fourie highlights sanctions as being solely political, giving an avenue to an entity like the European Union to condemn or disagree with the policies of another country. Considering the EU has only recently extended the sanctions on Mugabe and his regime, it doesn’t seem like they are going to rethink their strategy anytime soon. “It would be an interesting experiment if they suddenly removed sanctions,” Fourie imagines. “Mugabe’s legitimacy goes out the window then there’s no excuse for the population to suffer. The sanctions are clearly not benefitting anyone at the moment, Mugabe has stayed in power and he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.”

Chan also points to the beginning of the western intervention in the Zimbabwean chaos, after Mugabe passed rushed land reforms, effectively taking 4000 white farmers properties with the intention to equally distribute land among white and black population. “If Mugabe disposed black farmers of their land, as opposed to white farmers, would the international community have made this fuss? Most people would answer, no.”

It just isn’t politically possible to lift the sanctions now, with no other way of looking strong on the world stage and condemning Zimbabwe and other states actions. “Sanctions feel like we’re doing something good. They become an automatic response to penalizing someone,” Fourie concludes. The only other alternative is even softer; just dismissing the rogue leader publically.

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