For too long Zimbabwe has been afflicted by an atmosphere that is at once febrile and frozen.
Anxiety runs high, rumours bubble ceaselessly to the surface, and very little real progress takes place.
Zanu-PF with its hands on the guns – and the diamonds holds the blocking stake in the global political agreement, and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is so keen to hold on to any of the available levers that it accepts compromise after unsatisfactory compromise. But now there are signs of real movement.
The completion of a draft constitution appears to represent an imperfect but important step toward the restoration of democracy. There are real threats to this process, however, particularly from the security establishment and its political proxies, who seek to cling to power at all costs. It is crucial to ensure that they cannot scupper the constitutional process.
One way to weaken the hardliners is to listen to the growing chorus of voices for the dropping of European Union and United States sanctions that target the Zanu-PF elite. The Southern African Development Community has long been arguing that the sanctions harden attitudes and make it more difficult to secure reform commitments from President Robert Mugabe and his party. Indeed, sanctions are the glue that holds together an otherwise fractious Zanu-PF leadership and provide a key campaign platform for Mugabe. Remove them, and you deprive him of his excuse for miserable economic performance and a shared sense of injustice with the generals.
This argument is now having an impact in Western capitals. The European Union is ambivalent in public, but appears to be edging toward easing some key restrictions, and Bruce Wharton, US President Barack Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Zimbabwe, made conciliatory noises in senate testimony this week. “We do need to make it clear that our policies are flexible … and we should be able to adjust them in response to democratic progress, progress on the rule of law on the ground in Zimbabwe,” he reportedly said.
A tougher line
The diplomatic grapevine suggests that Britain is taking a tougher line, but there can be little doubt that a new consensus is beginning to emerge in the international community. There is a real possibility, of course, that all this represents an effort to wish change into being, and a risk that it will lead to a settlement that gives up too much justice for peace.
Certainly that is a charge that can be levelled at the establishment of a Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission with no powers to investigate events prior to 2009. That means continuing impunity for the Gukhurahundi massacres of the 1980s, the political violence of 2002 to 2008, and the mass demolitions of Operation Murambatsvina in 2005.
Compromises like this may be difficult for supporters of the MDC leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, to stomach.
Hard to stomach, too, is the scale of the looting of Zimbabwe’s resources that has only accelerated during the sanctions era. As we report this week, eye-watering sums are being siphoned off to South Africa and, no doubt, to other countries too. Any credible path forward for Zimbabwe will have to deal with this issue.
Off course none of this progress will mean anything unless an environment for generally free and fair elections can be secured.
Right now, however, we have to give a cautious nod of welcome, even to compromised progress, and support calls for the lifting of sanctions that are probably more helpful to Mugabe now than they are to proponents of change.