Many of us would feel a lot better if President Thabo Mbeki, the most credible and influential leader in the region, would phone Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and give him a firm and irrevocable deadline to move out of office. It would enable us to feel that the fundamental human rights values,for which we fought in the struggle against apartheid, are alive and well. The problem is that South African foreign policy does not work like that.
There nevertheless comes a time when one needs to say to those responsible for sustained and vicious abuse of their own people, “No more” — even where the person responsible has the kind of support that Mugabe has in parts of Africa, not least because of his capacity to exploit the residue of anti-colonial feeling. He needs to be told: “Hear the cry of your own people.”
The difficulty is that Mbeki is probably not sure if loud diplomacy will work any better than quiet diplomacy. What could he reasonably do to back any publicly declared ultimatum? How much support would Mbeki get from other African leaders if he were to take unilateral action against a senior African liberation leader?
Opposition forces in Zimbabwe are being terrorised and this threatens to render the Zimbabwean elections unfree and unfair before they are declared. It will be difficult for South Africa to suggest that elections are credible in the present climate.
Some talk of the need to turn off the electricity, close the border and impose economic sanctions. “Don’t talk to us about civil war, famine and political chaos, we will take our chances,” a senior Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader noted. It is all a bit like the South African debate between liberation movement supporters, who bore the brunt of government jackboots in the townships and neighbouring countries, and those in more comfortable places who counselled restraint and constructive engagement.
Clearly, there are differences between the situation that prevailed in South Africa and the one presently unfolding in Zimbabwe. These need to be taken into account in any initiative devised to assist Zimbabweans in dealing with their crisis.
Opposition forces, for a variety of reasons, are simply not as organised there as they were in South Africa in the 1980s. Their strategic goals to counter government domination are simply not clear to all who would like to offer the kind of solidarity that is needed. The threatening famine, resources crisis and the apparent divisions within Zanu-PF are not being exploited to the benefit of the opposition.
The MDC has not managed to convince Mbeki or other African leaders that it is a government-in-waiting. International support for the forces of opposition is not (again for a variety of reasons) anywhere near the level anti-apartheid movements enjoyed in the countdown to the beginning of political change in South Africa. The “ifs”, “whys” and “buts” of all this can be debated. The question is how to intervene meaningfully in the situation to effect real change, rather than simply to ensure that we all feel morally vindicated by Mbeki giving Mugabe an ultimatum.
The June 30 deadline Mbeki cited to end the Zimbabwean impasse a year ago at the World Economic Forum summit in Durban has produced no results. This has been publicly acknowledged by presidential spokesperson Bheki Khumalo.
The recent talks between MDC leaders and Mbeki in Pretoria suggest an adjustment to the president’s Zimbabwe strategy, although clearly his contacts with opposition leaders have been maintained. The most significant development in this regard is the report presented to the African Union executive council on the Zimbabwean situation.
After a strong indication that the report had been adopted by the full executive, its adoption was apparently blocked as a result of a Zimbabwean government intervention. The report slams the government for arrest and torture of opposition members of Parliament, human rights lawyers, the arrest of journalists, the stifling of freedom of expression and clampdown on other civil liberties.
The words of the report leave little doubt as to the views of its drafters: “By its statements and political rhetoric, and by its failure to uphold the rule of law, the government failed to chart a path that signalled a commitment to the rule of law.
“The land question is not in itself the cause of division. It appears that at the heart is a society in search of change, and divided about how best to achieve change after two decades of dominance by a political party that carried the hopes and aspirations of the people of Zimbabwe through the liberation struggle into independence.” The hand of the South African government in the drafting of the report can be discerned. The nature of the intervention suggests Mbeki-style foreign policy, not least regarding the African continent.
It is one that is multilateral, regional and inclusively African. To the extent that the report promotes the beginning of regional consensus (despite the apparent wavering response to its adoption), it is a signal of mounting African frustration with Mugabe.
The report suggests a growing realisation that Zimbabwe is an increasing threat to political stability in the region, capable of undermining the credibility of the African Charter and the capacity of the AU to deal with rogue nations.
There are indications that Mbeki is feeling the need to change tactics. African leaders are frustrated, maybe even a little embarrassed.
Several Zanu-PF leaders are increasingly unsure whether Mugabe can give them a few more years in the comfort of material and political power. The MDC has got to know that it is, perhaps, now or never. The political landscape in Zimbabwe could be about to undergo a shift that will demand adjustment from all the players involved if progress is to be made.
For this to happen, it is time for Mbeki and other African leaders to provide the kind of regional leadership that is required before Zimbabwe takes the final tip into the abyss that desperate people are often unable to prevent. It is time for African leaders to take a stand.
Charles Villa-Vicencio is executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation