Zuma (L) and Khama (R) are not the best of buddies.

Why Zuma Dislikes Democratic Khama – And Pretoria Thinks He’s Not A Pan-Africanist – But Loves Autocratic Mugabe

IT is one of the many anomalies of South African President Jacob Zuma’s administration’s foreign policy that it evidently enjoys better political relations with its chaotically governed northern neighbour Zimbabwe than its far better governed western neighbour, Botswana. The comparison is revealing about Pretoria’s basic worldview.

In this year’s Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, Botswana shone once again, coming second with a score of 73.7%, while Zimbabwe languished as usual near the bottom of the heap, coming in at 39th with a fail mark of 44.3%.

Botswana scores so well on the index because of its steady and peaceful democratic governance since independence and its proper stewardship of the country’s natural resources, mainly diamonds.

President Zuma acknowledged these achievements in early November, after meeting Botswana’s President Ian Khama in Pretoria. Zuma praised Botswana as a “model of democracy, stability and rule of law,” adding that its management of its natural resources ‘to the betterment and development of the country” was exemplary.

By contrast with this good neighbour, the imploding Zimbabwean economy continues to propel a steady exodus of economic (and to some degree political) refugees across the Limpopo River.

So the reason for South Africa’s better political relations with Zimbabwe than Botswana is evidently less about governance than about ideology.

The African National Congress (ANC) government clearly prefers President Robert Mugabe’s aggressively anti-Western, anti-neocolonialist and enthusiastically pan Africanist posture to what it quietly regards as Khama’s pro-Western and un-Africanist stance.


On these scores, Khama has recently confirmed a few times that Botswana is indeed an outlier in the region and even perhaps the continent.

In October, he told a Reuters reporter the Zimbabwe’s 92-year-old leader should, “without doubt,” have vacated State House “years ago”. Then Khama’s government issued a statement saying it was “regrettable” that South Africa was pulling out of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Botswana is the Hague-based court’s strongest defender in Africa even as the rest of the continent’s relations with the ICC continue to deteriorate.

And then, just for good measure, Khama’s foreign minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi suggested to her South African counterpart Maite Nkoana-Mashabane recently that Khama’s scheduled visit to South Africa to meet Zuma should be postponed because by then Zuma might have been removed from office by the Democratic Alliance’s no-confidence vote in Parliament.

One can imagine Nkoana-Mashabane’s indignation at receiving this missive. According to the Sunday Times, she told Venson-Moitoi that Zuma would still be securely ensconced in office – and she was right. Khama duly visited.

Whether Khama really thought the ANC was about to jettison Zuma or was just mischievously highlighting Zuma’s domestic political predicament is not clear. Either way, it clearly irritated Pretoria, enormously.

As had Botswana’s criticism of Pretoria’s decision to leave the ICC. South Africa’s High Commissioner to Botswana and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mdu Lembede told the Sunday Standard that “nobody can tell us about encouraging impunity. Nobody has a right to say that”.

He noted pointedly that on 30 June 2003 Botswana had signed a Bilateral Immunity Agreement with the US, pledging not to extradite American citizens to the ICC.

Lembede no doubt intended to underscore South Africa’s apparent perception that Botswana is a stooge of the US.

Pretoria also believes that Khama is not committed to the continent, is not a ‘pan Africanist’. Apart from his criticism of Mugabe, an official African icon, and his support for the ICC, which the African Union (AU) regards as an anti-African weapon of neo-imperialists, Khama very rarely – if ever – attends AU summits, which he dismisses as mere talkshops, they say.


Khama’s eccentric positions are stoking tensions between South Africa and Botswana about the election in January of the new AU Commission chairperson.

SADC has officially endorsed Venson-Moitoi as its candidate for the post. And after his meeting with Khama on Friday, Zuma publicly confirmed his support for her.

Nonetheless there is clearly very little enthusiasm for Venson-Moitoi in Pretoria, and Gaborone evidently suspects South Africa is “de-campaigning” her.

A senior South African official confides that if he were in Zuma’s seat at the AU summit in January, he would take advantage of the secret ballot to vote against Venson-Moitoi, “because Khama is not a pan Africanist”. Whether Zuma feels the same remains to be seen.

Peter Fabricius, is an ISS Consultant

-ISS Africa

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