Solving violence in Zimbabwe

In the wake of a civil protest in Zimbabwe which resulted in widespread violence against protesters, resolving the turmoil should be a keen interest for the Southern African region. According to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, at least 12 people have been killed, 78 were shot at, and 240 experienced “assault, torture, inhumane and degrading treatment”. There are reports of live ammunition in use by the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF), unlawful detentions and various other illegitimate strategies to quell protests.

Opinions on how to address conflict in the embattled nation differ among South Africans. On social media, there are opinions which stretch from the direct intervention of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to a simple statement of discontent from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). Comparing the historical success of various initiatives can create a better image of the suggested path forward.


The Southern African Development Community (SADC) militarily intervened in Lesotho for a period of nine months between September 1998 and May 1999 in response to a coup d’état. Operation Boleas was effectively an invasion of Lesotho, spear-armed by the SANDF. The occupation resulted in immense infrastructural and territorial damage in the nation’s capital, Maseru. Instead of calming conflict, widespread rioting, violence, arson, and looting occurred. Lesotho required several years to recover the losses incurred during the intervention.

The situation in Lesotho was eerily similar to Zimbabwe’s present woes. In 1998, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy won the May parliamentary elections, but opposition parties cried foul, claiming widespread electoral fraud. South African Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, created a formal inquiry headed by South African High Court Judge, Justice Pius Langa, including delegates from Botswana and Zimbabwe. This audit could not conclusively claim that the election in Lesotho was invalid, but stated that “apparent irregularities and discrepancies are of sufficiently serious concern.” The report effectively endorsed the electoral outcome, while also seemingly acknowledging electoral fraud. A preliminary report confirmed serious discrepancies between the number of voters and the election announcements and the tampering of election materials. In September 1998, the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) rebelled against the government.

By comparing the nation’s similar circumstances, it is plausible that military intervention in Zimbabwe will intensify violence, especially considering that the ZDF are pro-government. In fact, the present issue relates to the use of violence by the ZDF, which may only escalate through strong-armed intervention.   

However, there were also irregularities during Operation Boleas which contributed to its failure. Lesotho’s Prime Minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, requested the military intervention from SADC. The intervention was conducted through the agreement of the SADC heads of state, neglecting to consult the King of Lesotho or the United Nations, both would have been necessary for the legitimacy of the intervention. Moreover, the invasion did not appear to have humanitarian objectives. Instead, the early stages of invasion guarded Lesotho’s Katse Dam, which provided water to South Africa. Additionally, the invasion occurred on behalf of Lesotho’s government, opposing the protesting groups. In fact, acting South African President, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, confirmed that the intervention aimed to ‘secure the Dam, restore order in the security establishment and clear protesters from the Royal Palace.’ It is fair to conclude that the SADC intervention in Lesotho was motivated by interests to protect Lesotho’s water resources and empower the government.

The calls for military intervention in Zimbabwe are seemingly legitimate calls for humanitarian assistance. There is growing evidence that the ZDF is itself killing, maiming and raping Zimbabwean citizens. Any military intervention by SADC would be geared to protect protesting groups, particularly civilians. However, despite possessing a more humanitarian objective, military intervention in Zimbabwe could create similar consequences as Operation Boleas. SADC should learn from its failures in Lesotho and attempt to not repeat them again. Military intervention is not a viable solution.


There have been widespread calls for the South African government, led by the African National Congress (ANC), to condemn violence condoned by the Zimbabwean government, led by their longtime transnational alliance partners, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Certainly, the ANC has little intention to undermine its partnership. 

On official government-level, DIRCO issued a brief statement on 15 January 2019:

“The South African Government has noted protests action in Zimbabwe and is monitoring the situation. Consultations are taking place between diplomats, we are confident that the measures being taken by the Zimbabwean Government will resolve the situation.”

The government released as few words possible, just noting the protests without condemning any violence against protesting groups. This reveals a weak resolve to address allegations of state-sponsored terror. Certainly, there are more thorough diplomatic routes for SADC to approach. However, this would require a thorough understanding of the causes of political and economic turmoil in Zimbabwe, as well as pressuring Zimbabwean authorities to take accountability for the harm against protesters.

SADC may be unable to directly intervene on the electoral process, economic management, and governance policies in Zimbabwe (which are wider causes of current unrest), but SADC can play a critical role in eliminating violence against people in the nation. To achieve this, SADC would effectively need to develop conclusive evidence that the ZDF Is directly responsible for the killing, raping and maiming of protesting groups. Furthermore, there should be an attempt to delineate accountability to individual members of the ZDF.

This strategy was effective at curbing military violence in Nigeria. When Olusegun Obasanjo became president of Nigeria in 1999, Nigeria had undergone 33 years of civil unrest, repeated destructive coups and immense military violence. Obasanjo requested a list of all military personnel who had participated in a coup. All the people on this list were relieved of their military duties, effectively removed from the military. This created real and lasting consequences for individual members of the military. The result was a more peaceful and stable Nigerian state. By seeking out individual military personnel and holding them personally accountable, military violence subsided.

Similarly, Zimbabwe could achieve similar outcomes by relieving all military personnel who have committed acts of violence against protesting groups. This would require a thorough investigation by internal NGOs, such as the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, a formal inquiry by SADC, similar to the Langa Commission. Already, video material is widely circulating evidencing ZDF officers violence during the state crackdown. The benefit of the present information era is the ability for SADC to collect the necessary evidence to hold the ZDF accountable. Unlike in 1999, they do not have to rely on a list from the military itself.

Historical resolution strategies for conflict on the African continent have created a resource for people to determine solutions in the present. Any form of strong-armed intervention, particularly military invasion, may create longer-lasting violent consequences for Zimbabwe. Alternatively, the focus should be geared at creating accountability for individual members of the ZDF to create recourse for the existing violence and deter any future iterations.

Certainly, SADC should also be interested in addressing more pertinent economic woes in Zimbabwe, such as the fuel hike, which created the unrest in the first place. However, with regard to the violence against people in the nation, SADC should consider direct military accountability.


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