Five years into the crisis, it is evident that Pretoria and Africa’s position on Zimbabwe cannot be called quiet diplomacy.
And so the question should not be what African leaders should be doing about Zimbabwe, but what the effect is of what Pretoria and other African powers are already doing in relation to Zimbabwe? For example, at the United Nations Human Rights Commission session from March 17 to April 27 2003 in Geneva, Switzerland, South Africa voted to block discussion of a resolution from the European Union expressing concern about the human rights violations in Zimbabwe.
Just as it participated in the blocking of a similar resolution in 2002, South Africa in that year voted for a non-action approach in accordance with the much-abused Article 2 of Rule 65 of the UN Economic and Social Council procedures, under which the human rights commission operates as one of the functional commissions of council. In the 2003 deliberations, South Africa felt convinced enough to actually vote for blocking discussion on Zimbabwe.
Confronted with the question, in February 2003, of whether to lift the Commonwealth sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe in 2002, Mbeki argued strongly that the situation in Zimbabwe was improving, and that therefore it was time to lift sanctions.
In December 2002, a meeting of the parliamentary assembly of the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries with the EU under the Cotonou framework practically collapsed in Brussels when South Africa led other ACP countries in seeking to ensure the participation in the meeting of Paul Mangwana, a Zimbabwean politician on the EU sanctions list. In mid-2003, the South African minister of health threatened to walk out of a meeting of health ministers in Geneva if her counterpart from Zimbabwe was not allowed to participate. There has been a clear demonstration of solidarity with Mugabe amid the human rights, governance and economic crisis in his country, sufficient to make Mugabe confident enough to say recently that Harare and Pretoria are in solidarity.
South African foreign affairs official Welile Hlapo seemed to have found a convenient way in 2001 to deflect attention from human rights issues when he insinuated that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change was allegedly “the recipient of funds from the United Kingdom’s Westminster Foundation”, as reported in the Daily News of November 6 2001.
Against the background of electoral fraud, intimidation, murder and press gagging, it is the South African official delegation that certified as “legitimate” the 2002 presidential election that many other international observers found to be unacceptable.
When, three years later, a chance could have been seized to bring the country back to political legitimacy, it was some African delegations, including the one led by the South African Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana, that found the deeply flawed elections in March to have reflected the will of the Zimbabweans.
Some African leaders, and Pretoria in particular, have simply not been able to call Mugabe’s human rights abuses by their name.
When South African politicians have spoken about the situation in Zimbabwe, they have done so with water in their mouths. Over the past five years there have been key opportunities to speak clearly about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, for example, Mbeki’s answers to questions in the National Assembly (March 26 2003); then deputy president Jacob Zuma’s answers in the National Assembly (September 11 2002), among others.
Harare has often promised Mbeki that a solution was on its way. An understanding of the way Mugabe operates would show that there is no reason to take such assurances seriously. Recently the Zimbabwean minister of local government said his government does not need help to implement the so-called Operation Restore Order. But the government has now asked South Africa for a $1-billion loan.
Pretoria needs to make the deals with Harare transparent, not only because these debts are borne by Zimbabweans, but because it enables Zimbabweans to demand accountability for how these resources are used. If there is any “synchronisation”, as Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said last week, needed, it is between what Pretoria is doing on the one hand and, on the other, the efforts in relation to Zimbabwe of leaders such as Zwelinzima Vavi, Molefe Tsele, Jody Kollapen, Van Zyl Slabbert, Archbishop Njongokulu Ndungane, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jeremy Cronin, Hassan Loggart, Elinor Sisulu, Mazibuko Jara, Sheila Meintjes, Venitia Govender and the organisations they all work with.
There is no doubt that there are many in the South African government who harbour some level of private discomfort about Mugabe.
In his book, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, William Mervin Gumede writes of his interview with Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad on September 23 2003, disclosing how a frustrated Mbeki had at some point sighed: “Why can’t he [Mugabe] just leave, resign?” Mugabe needs to know that, far from having a fan club in Pretoria, he is only being tolerated for a specific short time, to enforce specific reforms.
Pretoria must not hesitate to read to the Zanu-PF leadership that ultimate threat — that if it does not turn the corner within a set time, then it risks being “discouraged” from using South Africa as a haven, from keeping its children in South African schools as it destroys the Zimbabwean schooling system, from buying its victuals in South Africa as Zimbabweans starve.
In May 2003 Finance Minister Trevor Manuel dramatised the discourse that there is no alternative to so-called “quiet diplomacy” when he charged: “They say quiet diplomacy has failed. Should we act like Ariel Sharon? Should we just go in there; kick butt? If there are alternative solutions, let’s hear what they are.”
I have presented a few. Zimbab-wean people, not its government, have many more.
Tawanda Mutasah was the founding convenor and moderator of Zimbabwe’s National Constitutional Assembly, a civic coalition campaigning for reform