Will Mbeki move from quiet diplomacy?

A debate is under way among analysts and civil society activists about how South African President Thabo Mbeki should proceed in fulfilling the mandate given to him last month by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to continue mediating between Zimbabwe’s government and opposition.

The hope is that talks between the political groupings will enable Zimbabwe to address a political and economic crisis that has led to repeated human rights abuses, shortages of basic goods, and soaring inflation and unemployment.

Some question the effectiveness of the policy of quiet diplomacy that Mbeki has adopted towards Zimbabwe until now.

“Mbeki has failed in his quiet diplomacy. This is the fifth time SADC has mandated him to mediate in Zimbabwe since 2000,” says Idai Zimunya, coordinator of the Crisis Coalition of Zimbabwe, a pressure group based in South Africa. “But it’s too early to judge him on his previous failure.”

Notes Claude Kabemba of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, a think tank in Johannesburg: “I think Mbeki needs to move from quiet diplomacy to open mediation so that people know what he’s doing.

“In the past we didn’t know who he was talking to — and nobody knew who was creating problems for the quiet diplomacy. If the mediation is transparent, people will know who’s holding it to ransom.”

For its part, the South African government argues that an outspoken approach would alienate the Mugabe regime and cause Zimbabwean officials to harden their position.

Political violence

The special SADC summit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where the 14-bloc grouping handed the mandate to Mbeki, was convened amid global concern about another wave of political violence in Zimbabwe.

“The government of Zimbabwe has permitted security forces to commit serious abuses with impunity against opposition activists and ordinary Zimbabweans alike,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch noted in a March 28 statement. “Security forces are responsible for arbitrary arrests and detentions and beatings of opposition Movement for Democratic Change [MDC] supporters, civil society activists, and the general public.”

One activist was killed in the latest bout of repression, while a number of opposition supporters were beaten and hospitalised when a prayer meeting was broken up by police on March 11 — including Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of one of the factions in the MDC.

Mugabe accuses the party of undertaking a terror campaign to topple him, a charge the opposition has denied.

The media, already constrained in their operations, have also been feeling the effects of the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe.

Last week, the body of Zimbabwean cameraman Edward Chikomba was found about 50km west of the capital, Harare, after he had been abducted towards the end of March. The killing of the former state broadcaster employee has been attributed to his reported leaking to foreign media of footage showing injuries sustained by Tsvangirai during the violent dispersal of the March 11 prayer meeting.

Under the 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, foreign correspondents have effectively been banished from Zimbabwe, where authorities have also made accreditation for local reporters mandatory.

Gift Phiri, who writes for a London-based weekly, the Zimbabwean, was hospitalised last week. According to a statement by the International Freedom of Expression eXchange and Reporters sans Frontières, he required treatment for injuries acquired while being beaten during four days spent in police custody. Phiri has apparently been charged with working without the required accreditation.

In addition, Time magazine reporter Alexander Perry was arrested, convicted and fined for working without accreditation; the fine was reportedly less than $1.

Failed strike

Trade unions in Zimbabwe called for a strike last week to increase the pressure for political change. However, there was reportedly a limited response to the appeal.

“With unemployment standing at 80%, you can imagine the pressure on the 20% employed — many of whom do not belong to any union,” says Nicholas Dube, a representative in South Africa of the MDC. “The majority of Zimbabweans are self-employed, selling tomatoes or other types of vegetables. They are not members of any union to go on strike.”

Also, “If any employer closes a business … the government automatically withdraws his or her licence,” says Dube.

Further pressure has come from Catholic bishops in Zimbabwe, who issued a message over Easter warning that public uprisings against the current situation are imminent (Mugabe is himself a Roman Catholic).

“Many people in Zimbabwe are angry, and their anger is now erupting into open revolt,” stated the bishops’ letter, which was titled “God hears the cries of the oppressed”. “In order to avoid further bloodshed and avert a mass uprising, the nation needs a new, people-driven constitution that will guide a democratic leadership chosen in free and fair elections.”

Elections held over the past few years have been marred by irregularities and rights abuses.

The bishops also called for prayer and fasting to take place this coming Saturday, to push for reform. This would doubtless have the approval of Zimunya, who believes a broad range of actions is needed to bring about change.

“We are not putting all our eggs in SADC. We will not sit back and relax,” he says. “We will use other strategies … to complement SADC efforts. We believe it’s not only one key that can unlock the Zimbabwe crisis.” — IPS

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Moyiga Nduru
Guest Author

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