This week the Mail & Guardian reports, in horrifying detail, the confessions of a former member of the Zimbabwean National Youth Service who was allegedly recruited and trained by President Robert Mugabe’s secret police to murder, torture and petrol-bomb members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Sickened by state brutality and now seeking refuge in Namibia, the young man tells of systematic rape and other abuses in secret internment camps which recall those used by South American “torture states” in the 1970s and 1980s. His account is a ringing indictment of a regime which, despite Mugabe’s pious anti-imperialist rhetoric, will stoop to any crime in its desperate clinging to power.
State violence against citizens has been the norm in Zimbabwe since 2000, when, after losing a constitutional referendum, Mugabe and his party suddenly realised they were in grave danger of electoral defeat.
The strategy then was to use violent land seizures to regain popular support, and repression by the security forces and Zanu-PF thugs to exclude the MDC from Zanu-PF’s rural stronghold. But in recent weeks state violence has become more systematic and more shameless, with the abduction, torture and public beating of oppositionists a particularly sinister new trend. The state media has been enlisted in a hysterical campaign to project the MDC as a violent organisation that has provoked a deserved security force crackdown, and its leaders as “terrorists”. In a scarcely credible article this week, the Herald accused the political attaché at the British embassy in Harare of financing the opposition and warned that she risked “going home in a body-bag”. Zimbabwe is on the brink of becoming a fully fledged police state.
Yet, despite the horrors, there is cause for optimism. Based on its communiqué calling for Britain to honour its land reform obligations and the lifting of sanctions, last week’s Southern African Development Community conference in Dar es Salaam has been widely read as a victory for Mugabe. It was nothing of the sort. The communiqué was little more than a public relations exercise; behind closed doors, regional leaders took a much tougher line. And Mugabe cannot be pleased with the substantive outcome. For the first time, SADC spoke with one voice—regional leaders want a national dialogue in Zimbabwe, an end to repressive legislation and the savage mauling of the MDC, and have designated President Thabo Mbeki to drive this agenda. It cannot have escaped Mugabe’s notice that even his ally, Angola, urged him to draw lessons from Angola’s experience of national reconciliation.
From Mbeki’s public pronouncements since the conference, there are already signs of greater urgency and a new approach. He told the Financial Times that he and fellow leaders in the region had been shocked by the police beating of MDC leaders, and that he had been mandated to pursue constitutional and electoral reform in Zimbabwe.
As the chorus of international condemnation has grown over the past decade, SADC has been Mugabe’s shield. But there are unmistakable signs that regional leaders, worried by the implications of Zimbabwe’s meltdown for their own countries, have lost patience. The shield is being lowered—and that is the most positive development in the Zimbabwean crisis for years.
There is something mesmerising about Thabo Mbeki when he is really on song, when he gives a speech that wraps up an issue in his broader political project. Which makes it all the more frustrating when his interventions are so much at odds with the vision he articulates from the podium.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his approach to corruption. Mbeki was on song this Monday when he told delegates to the United Nations Forum on Fighting Corruption and Safeguarding Integrity that graft is a barrier to “the objective of liberating billions of human beings from the scourge of poverty”. “All of us are agreed,” he added, “about the negative consequences of corruption on the lives of especially the ordinary people but also all the citizens of our countries.”
We agree that poverty may not only cause corruption, but is entrenched by it.
No doubt, some of Mbeki’s ANC colleagues would have been amused to hear him reciting the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and suggesting a benevolent dictatorship was one possible response to the greed and nastiness of humanity. But of course he didn’t mean it; he favours a democratic approach based on respect for our common humanity.
He went on to say remedial action must “go beyond the rhetoric of perceptions and blame. It must constructively utilise approaches developed in the multilateral setting, and must involve global cooperation,” not just in the developing world, perceived as corrupt, but in rich countries too.
At this point, the credibility gap yawns too wide for us to stay with him.
Mbeki’s government has ignored, frustrated and sidestepped crucial international investigations into the arms deal, aimed precisely at discovering who in Europe corrupted a new government in the developing world, and at punishing those who damaged its institutions and its poor.
Then there is the unedifying spectacle of the Post Office, backed by a minister in Mbeki’s Cabinet, attempting to destroy its suspended boss Khutso Mampeule, who was silly enough to try and clean up a sty of corruption.
And finally there is Jackie Selebi, now so deeply mired in allegations of corruption as to be utterly without credibility. “Trust me”, says Mbeki, in the tones of a benevolent dictator, while playing the brutal Hobbesian game of succession politics.
The problem with forked tongues is that it makes you deaf.