Mbeki's Zim paradox

Two stories in this edition spotlight the paradox of President Thabo Mbeki’s handling of the Zimbabwean crisis, as the president of a neighbouring African state and the region’s appointed mediator.

On the one hand there is the hard-hitting analysis Mbeki sent President Robert Mugabe in 2001, lambasting Mugabe’s economic mismanagement and assaults on democracy. Presciently, the South African leader warns of Zimbabwe’s growing isolation, of the danger posed by the violent “war veterans” who have swamped the ruling party and of the potential fallout for the region of a deepening crisis. He calls on Mugabe to cooperate with the emerging Movement for Democratic Change, with Britain and the International Monetary Fund, and cautions against the reckless misuse of anti-imperalist rhetoric.

On the other there is the fact that South Africa has been a worse offender than China in the weapons trade to Zimbabwe, allowing both state-owned Armscor and private dealers to strengthen the vicious and corrupt Zimbabwean military and fuel repression by selling it everything from small arms to helicopters and missiles. This is consistent with South Africa’s deep reluctance to condemn Zimbabwe’s human rights crimes and repeated moves to shield it from international opprobrium in the United Nations Security Council, the UN Human Rights Commission and the Commonwealth.

What this suggests is that Mbeki fully appreciates the nastiness of Mugabe’s totalitarian order but has managed to delude himself for many years that the Zimbabwean dictator and his clique are amenable to reason. Mbeki has virtues, but the ability to judge character is not one of them. It also suggests his deep stubbornness and difficulties in admitting he is wrong. He has continued pandering to Mugabe and looking the other way as the attacks on democratic norms, economic idiocy and “regional contagion” he warned against in 2001 have steadily worsened.

He will argue that more robust tactics, including economic pressure, would have been no more successful. Perhaps. But his policy of appeasement, which even other African countries now see as a case of bias in Mugabe’s favour, has done South Africa great harm. Once a shining example of the victory of human rights over repression, the country’s image has been tarnished by association with Mugabe’s tyranny. Just as seriously, it has given the impression that South Africa’s rulers covertly sympathise with Zimbabwe’s rape of the rule of the law and particularly its unconstitutional land grabs. The one thing that can be said in Mbeki’s favour is that the recent Zimbabwean election, which he helped engineer, has made it morally impossible to defend Mugabe’s regime. But this has come at enormous cost to Zimbabwe’s ­people and the region.

From the outset he should have spoken out about Mugabe’s abuses and distanced South Africa from events across our northern border, as Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, and now Kenya, have done. Given Zimbabwe’s descent into economic and political anarchy, how feeble and misguided his past rejection of “megaphone diplomacy” now seems!

An ‘up yours’ to South Africa
President Thabo Mbeki has exceeded even his own high standards of political arrogance.

He has provoked howls of outrage by deciding to extend, for a year, the contract of police commissioner Jackie Selebi, despite the corruption charges facing South Africa’s top cop. This is a massive “up yours” to public opinion and victims of crime.

Selebi’s supporters will point to decreases in some types of crime, claiming this resulted from his able leadership. While it is true that some categories have tapered off, this has hardly been significant and others have risen.

Besides, the police have emphasised the social causes of crime, meaning it is a problem to be owned by all of government, not just the men and women in blue. How, then, can one man claim ownership of the alleged improvement?

The fact of the matter is that Selebi’s reign has been marked by controversy over his restructuring of the police as much as by his legendary buffoonery. He has not risen to the challenge and inspired confidence in the face of one of the worst crime waves any country has experienced.

Based on his performance alone he is the wrong man for the job.

As for his brush with the law, Selebi’s supporters will argue that he has not been found guilty in a court of law and must be deemed innocent until proved guilty. While we cannot fault the principle, its application is plain wrong. This is not about firing him; it is about reappointing him to a job to which he had no legitimate expectation and in respect of which Mbeki and the government owed him no duty.

And whether Selebi is guilty or innocent in the criminal sense is hardly the only issue. He has lied to the media when confronted with difficult questions about his interaction with the cream of South African organised crime. The fact of his association with someone like Glenn Agliotti has revealed at the very least fatally flawed judgement.

Compounding Mbeki’s insensitivity is his timing. Cabinet announced the decision a day before Selebi’s appearance in court and as government’s case against public prosecutions head Vusi Pikoli, whom Mbeki had suspended after Pikoli obtained an arrest warrant for Selebi, was visibly crumbling.



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