Responding for the first time to the M&G’s publication of the Khampepe report on Zimbabwe’s 2002 elections, the leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T) also questioned Mbeki’s standing as an honest broker during some of Zimbabwe’s worst political turmoil. Mbeki was South Africa’s president at the time.
Mbeki is currently acting as the African Union’s chief mediator in Sudan, leading efforts to achieve lasting peace in that part of the continent. Talks between the government and Darfur rebel groups are due to resume next week.
“Well, I think it’s not a betrayal of me,” Tsvangirai said of the Mbeki government’s declaration that the election he lost had been free and fair, despite the finding to the contrary in the Khampepe report. “It’s a betrayal of the people of Zimbabwe.”
In hindsight, Tsvangirai said, Mbeki had been concerned not with democracy in Zimbabwe – despite many protestations to that effect before and after the elections – but only with stability. “And if stability meant [President Robert] Mugabe remains in power, even through illegitimate means, then so be it.”
Had Mbeki disclosed that South Africa had many reasons to find the 2002 election results suspect, Tsvangirai said, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) could have worked harder to ensure that future elections took place under better conditions, so forcing Zimbabwe to open up the democratic space.
South Africa had the casting vote
South Africa was not alone in declaring the 2002 elections free and fair, but its assessment was a crucial one – one that arguably amounted to the casting vote. Observer missions from Namibia, Nigeria, the Common Market for East and Southern Africa and the Organisation of African Unity all said the conduct of the elections had been of a sufficiently high standard to reflect the will of the people.
Observers from Ghana, Norway, Japan, Commonwealth nations, and the SADC, however, raised serious concerns.
South Africa’s endorsement carried weight In the midst of those conflicting opinions, the findings of three South African missions (including one each from Parliament and the ANC) were loaded with importance. Opposition parties that formed part of the parliamentary mission said in a minority opinion that they could not endorse the election result, but were overruled. The other two South African groups were fulsome in their praise.
“The mission is of the view that the outcome of the elections represents the legitimate voice of the people of Zimbabwe,” said the South African observer mission. “The people of Zimbabwe have spoken and let their will be respected by all.”
The judicial observer mission, which culminated in the Khampepe report, was never officially acknowledged; successive administrations would later argue in legal papers that it was considered confidential.
And although Mbeki carefully avoided fully accepting the supposed outcome immediately after the vote, he stood silent as first his government’s observer mission, then the party of which he was president, then the Parliament his party controlled, and ultimately the Cabinet he had appointed, endorsed the election outcome as legitimate.
These utterances were all the more important for the acknowledged impact the elections would have on South Africa itself, for good or for ill.
“If you have elections which are not seen as legitimate by the people, you will have a situation that will be worse than the present one,” Mbeki told foreign correspondents in Pretoria four months before the 2002 elections.
By conservative estimates some 500 000 Zimbabweans fled that country for South Africa in the face of economic and political turmoil, in the period before and in the wake of the 2002 elections.
Zimbabwe: a supermarket for South Africa
But although South Africans are liable to count that migration as a burden, Tsvangirai said South Africa ultimately profited by the chaos.
“I just feel that the people of Zimbabwe have been short-changed. The consequence is there for all to see: a collapsing economy, capital flight, collapse of social service delivery, and so on,” he said.
“I suppose we have become a supermarket for South Africa. Zimbabwe consumes 40% of its products from South Africa. The South African economy is booming while we sink.”
But coming more than a decade after the fact, the revelation that South Africa buried a weighty opinion that the vote was deeply flawed now serves little purpose, Tsvangirai said.
“I’m really thrilled that at last I have been vindicated but what is sad is that it is 12 years too late, and the people of Zimbabwe can’t have a remedy to this. One of the fundamental issues that arises is that democracy has been subverted.”
Tsvangirai challenged the 2002 election in the high court but judgment is yet to be passed. Tsvangirai and opposition parties have lost successive elections to Mugabe since.
Tsvangirai said Mbeki could not release the damning report once he received it because it was too embarrassing for Mugabe. That, he believes, forced Mbeki successors Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma to attempt likewise to keep the report secret, and so saw the grimly determined legal defence against the M&G’s demand to see it.
The government, in its years-long legal efforts to keep the report secret, consistently maintained that it contained privileged information given by Zimbabwe officials to special envoys of the South African government. Releasing the document, the government argued, would therefore damage diplomatic relations, and could imperil future diplomatic missions.
This meant that the document could not be released in terms of a section of the Promotion of Access to Information Act that pertains to documents with sensitive information from another state.
- Read: M&G wins right to view Khampepe Report on Zim elections
- Read: Khampepe report ‘vindicates’ civil society, opposition
The report, however, makes no reference to any meetings with officials, and does not refer to any information received from the Zimbabwean government.
It contains no information that could imperil sensitive sources, nothing said in confidence, and nothing that caused the M&G to consider redaction.
That could explain why high court Judge Joseph Raulinga said in one judgment on the matter – having been given sight of the document – the report can “never be reasonably be constructed as information supplied in confidence by or on behalf of another state”.
Three successive presidents maintained otherwise in legal documents, despite having full access to the report.
If Mbeki sent the judges to provide an opinion on the elections but never intended to make their findings public, that would amount to utter hypocrisy, Tsvangirai said. But had Mbeki published the findings, history could have been very different.
“Zimbabwe’s problems could have been solved in 2002 if this damning report had not been swept under the carpet,” he told Zimbabwean media on Wednesday. – Mail & Guardian
The many lies and deceit have been laid bare
Then-president Thabo Mbeki had before him a report from two respected jurists he had himself assigned, saying bluntly that Zimbabwe’s elections in March 2002 had not been free and fair, even as South Africa declared otherwise.
But, in retrospect, and with the advantage of the Khampepe report, South Africa’s deception – at best lying by omission – went deeper than a single statement.
In the run-up to the elections, Mbeki was unequivocal about what South Africa’s objective was: seeing democracy done.
“In pursuit of stability in our region, we will work tirelessly to support the people of Zimbabwe in their quest to hold free and fair elections in their country,” Mbeki said in his 2002 State of the Nation address in Parliament, a month before the elections.
“It is in the interest of the people of Zimbabwe and, indeed, the whole region that the government that emerges from the March elections is legitimate and enjoys the support of the majority … Clearly, the mission and the conditions that our teams seek to create are one and only one: let the people of Zimbabwe speak through the ballot box!”
It was a line Mbeki would maintain, never hinting that he had been told the elections had been fatally flawed. South Africa was unequivocally committed to assisting the people of Zimbabwe in ensuring democracy, he told a conference in November 2002.
In an October 2002 interview with the Sunday Times, Mbeki said that complaints about the elections were based on the fact that some observers believed “that some people did not get on to the voters’ role and, maybe, you should have extended the time on the voting day by a few hours, or something”.
“The matter of who governs Zimbabwe is a matter that is in the hands of the people of Zimbabwe,” he told the SABC in February 2003.
Mbeki was not alone in declaring what he knew – or should have known – to be at best a small part of the truth.
“We sent observers here, who were here observing each and every detail,” Jacob Zuma, then-deputy president, told Zimbabweans by way of Zimbabwe state television, shortly after the elections. “They have reported back and made their statement to say the elections were legitimate, are valid, they were free and fair, and we’ve got to respect that.”
That was officially backed up by the ruling party.
“The African National Congress congratulates the people of Zimbabwe for a successful 2002 presidential elections,” the party said in a statement after the vote. “As the ANC, we further offer our warm congratulations to Zanu-PF and President [Robert] Mugabe for a convincing majority win.”
Mbeki and his close advisers at the time refused to be interviewed or did not return calls from the Mail & Guardian this week. Zuma and ANC spokespersons did not respond to requests for comment. – Mail & Guardian