It took six years and a protracted multimillion-rand court battle under three presidents to find out what many suspected: that the 2002 Zimbabwe election was not free and fair.
This was the finding of two of South Africa’s most respected judicial officers – one now a deputy chief justice and the other a Constitutional Court judge – who were assigned by former president Thabo Mbeki to observe the election and report to him. Mbeki chose to ignore the opinion of Judge Sisi Khampepe and Judge Dikgang Moseneke and kept the report under wraps.
The monumental legal battle to bring it into the open ended last Friday in the Constitutional Court, which ruled in the Mail & Guardian‘s favour. Like HIV and Aids, Zimbabwe was one of Mbeki’s Achilles heels – he seems to have regarded Robert Mugabe’s violent and morally bankrupt regime as a victim of imperialist meddling and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as a Western stooge.
The Khampepe report underscores Mbeki’s betrayal of our Constitution’s values. It shows that he condoned the theft of the election and lied to the people of Zimbabwe, to South Africans and to the wider world by actively promoting the idea that the poll was the legitimate expression of the will of Zimbabweans.
Here was a leader who had fought and sacrificed for South Africa’s freedom, yet who connived in the subversion of democracy in a neighbouring state. He publicly denounced calls for regime change in Zimbabwe, but defended a fraudulent solution that kept Mugabe’s despotic government in power. And his successors, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma, were party to his cover-up by opposing this newspaper’s efforts to expose the truth.
Some have questioned the significance of a report on a poll that took place 12 years ago in a country that has since held several elections won by Mugabe. They ask what difference it will make to the Zimbabwe of today, with a weak and divided opposition that offers no viable alternative to Zanu-PF. It would help if we understood Mbeki’s thinking at the time – what he was trying to achieve and how he judges his decisions in retrospect.
But Mbeki has been characteristically silent since the report was published. He would no doubt argue that he saved Zimbabwe from a civil war that could have destabilised South Africa and the wider Southern African Development Community region.
In his book The Things That Could Not Be Said, his director general at the time, Frank Chikane, defends his boss’s policy of “quiet diplomacy”. But Mbeki’s detractors will argue that, by trying to play God, he undermined the democratic will of Zimbabweans and helped to entrench a pattern of electoral violence and intimidation in subsequent polls.
The Khampepe report documents 107 murders in the weeks before the elections, mainly of MDC supporters; in 2008 many more would die at the hands of Zanu-PF militias.
Our view is that the report remains highly relevant to contemporary South Africa and our continent. In the first place, it raises questions about Mbeki’s credibility as a peace broker. He continues to be regarded as one of Africa’s elder statesmen and is currently the African Union mediator in Sudan.
But above all, Friday’s judgment is a victory for the values of openness and transparency enshrined in our Constitution. It will, one hopes, send a signal to the government that attempts to bury information of vital interest to citizens can be countered by a dogged media and courts that are still willing to uphold the law without fear or favour.
It also serves as a timely warning that, despite the imperatives of the Constitution, South Africa’s leaders are as prone as politicians anywhere to lie, obfuscate and cover up the truth. Some of the men and women who were part of the South African observer mission in 2002 that declared that election legitimate still serve in the government.
Progressive Zimbabweans living in South Africa warn that they are starting to witness the signs of decay here that they saw before the storm broke in their own country. They particularly point to the capture of the state by a small, connected elite, the entrenchment of acolytes in top posts, the collapse of parastatals because of cronyism, the looting of state resources for personal gain, and the growing intolerance of opposing views.
We can choose to ignore the warnings and label those who echo these sentiments as racists or reactionary naysayers. We can continue to assume complacently that we are different from our northern neighbour and that the ANC is fundamentally different from Zanu-PF.
We can point to our Constitution as one of the most progressive in the world, and our courts as defenders of the people’s rights. We can argue that the rule of law in South Africa is still intact. But the Khampepe report highlights how easy it is, in the name of political expediency, for leaders to abrogate human rights and actively abet those who undermine them. We are on a slippery slope if we fail to hold them to account.