This week’s Commonwealth “troika” meeting in Abuja made one thing abundantly clear — it is game up in Zimbabwe. Unconstitutional and often violent land seizures will continue to the end; while human rights and governance abuses will continue for as long as the ruling party needs them. President Robert Mugabe has calculated well: South Africa, the region and the continent — and their representatives in the Commonwealth have dependably shielded him. South Africa insists it is powerless to act. It had an opportunity to do something in Abuja, and called pass.
Confronting Australian demands for tougher sanctions, the African troika members responded that Zimbabwe’s 12-month suspension from the Commonwealth had not run its course and more time was needed for diplomacy to bear fruit.
Plausible enough — if there had there been some progress in the six months since the Marlborough House demands: dialogue between Zanu-PF and the opposition, engagement with the Commonwealth on electoral changes, and involvement of the Commonwealth and the United Nations in land reform.
Nothing has happened on any of these fronts, as President Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo conceded to the world’s media after the Abuja meeting. Nor could they offer a convincing reason for believing another six months of diplomacy will make a difference.
By next March, when Zimbabwe’s suspension comes up for review, the horse will have bolted. Further Commonwealth sanctions will mean little if all commercial farmland has been seized and allocated, and all democratic forces scattered by Mugabe’s “siege of terror”, as opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has warned. But Mbeki and Obasanjo are more likely to argue that Mugabe’s land measures are a fait accompli, and that the world must do what it can to make them succeed. Action now is premature, it is argued. By next March the argument may well be that it is too late to act.
It is hard to see developed countries playing ball. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has publicly insisted Britain will not reward the violation of property rights and rule of law. With conservatives at the helm in the United States and a rightward drift in Europe, governments are looking for reasons to trim development aid.
Inflation in Zimbabwe is running at 135% — a fourfold increase in the two years since land invasions started — while formal unemployment has doubled to 70%. More than half a million farmworkers have been evicted and ruined. Commercial agriculture is on its last legs, with projections of a 40% lower maize crop this year, amid growing famine. It is important to understand what the destruction of commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe means. Zanu’s claim that it has no implications for food security because commercial farmers produced only for export is entirely misleading.
Close to half the country’s staple, maize, was grown on commercial farms, as well substantial quantities of vegetables, meat and dairy products for the home market. A sophisticated agricultural research base, funded by private farmers over many years, has been swept into oblivion. The shift to game-farming and export production in recent years was far from irrelevant to ordinary Zimbabweans — it was a source of scarce foreign exchange needed by the government to purchase essentials such as electricity and oil.It is a fantasy to think that peasant producers, parachuted on to unfamiliar land without extension services and subsidised inputs, can make up the shortfall even in the medium term. Zimbabwean journalists say large numbers are already decamping from their newly acquired properties.
In addition, a whole category of seized farms has been earmarked for urban business people, politicians, hangers-on of the ruling party and police and army brass, who have no intention of farming.
The fallout will inevitably be felt beyond the borders of Zimbabwe itself. The Botswana government repatriates 2 000 illegal Zimbabwean immigrants every week, and privately complains that the Zimbabwean contagion is affecting its vital tourism industry. As the famine deepens — and foreign food aid agencies warn that there is a 500 000-ton shortfall in the quantity of maize needed — more desperate economic refugees will pour into neighbouring countries. Every country in the region will suffer from investor perceptions that property rights and the rule of law are not safe. As reported in this edition, South Africa’s indulgence of Mugabe’s excesses has damaged Mbeki and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development in European eyes. How much credence can we give to Nepad’s pledge of good governance for aid and trade, they ask, when South Africa cannot deal with a governance crisis on its very doorstep?
Mugabe’s state-led agrarian revolution, strongly coloured by the peasant utopianism of Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, is as good as over. Some, who cannot think beyond their longing for racial revenge, will applaud this fact. But as in China and Cambodia, there will be a heavy price to pay for Mugabe’s political extravagance not just by ordinary Zimbabweans, but by the whole southern African region.