Editor’s Memo

A volte-face

THE momentum from Grande Baie, Mauritius, has been lost after Sadc chair Paul Berenger this week adopted the line of least resistance on Zimbabwe.

“Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif”>Having laid down the regional bloc’s benchmarks on the holding of free and fair elections at the summit in August, Sadc heads appeared set to usher in a new era of electoral accountability of their members to each other.

“As this new charter itself reminds us, really free and fair elections mean not only an independent electoral commission but also include freedom of assembly and absence of physical harassment by the police or another entity, freedom of the press and access to national radio and television, and external and credible observation of the whole electoral process,” Berenger said then.

“And with free and fair elections due in Zimbabwe at the beginning of next year, we can already start preparing for the normalisation of relations between Sadc, the European Union and the United States of America,” he said.

But Berenger made a volte-face this week on Sadc’s role. He is now singing from the same hymn sheet as South African president Thabo Mbeki. The hymn “Quiet Diplomacy” has found a new chorister.

In an interview with SABC this week, Berenger lashed out at interventionists, whom he accused of arrogance. He said there should be a mission to assess the situation on the ground.

Sadc has in the past demonstrated a marked reluctance to undertake such a mission.

“I am hopeful … we must succeed together. The purpose as I said is not to be disrespectful, to bully people around, to interfere in an unacceptable way — the idea is to amongst us as brothers and sisters in the Sadc region help each other to move together to implement this charter.”

Berenger’s assertion is affirmation that Sadc leaders will not raise loud complaints about the NGOs Bill and contentious electoral legislation because the leaders should “not interfere in an unacceptable way”.

That hopeless posturing has been glorified under the high-sounding policy called quiet diplomacy. We said in August that the electoral charter would be a major test of Sadc’s commitment to its own peer review mechanism.

They have failed, which was only to be expected.

But more saddening, the effect of that hands-off posture is to block the proactive among Western democracies from voicing their objections to human rights violations and electoral fraud.

But Sadc, as the custodians of the electoral charter — hailed as an African innovation in the holding of free and fair elections — has a role to play in ensuring that Zimbabwe adheres to the precepts of the election document.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai who is on an international drive to advertise the Sadc norms and President Mugabe’s non-compliance with them, has remained hopeful — albeit incongruously — that Mugabe is in a fix. Tsvangirai’s Tuesday message this week begs a number of questions on his reading of the Zimbabwean situation less than four months before the general election in March.

“The Robert Mugabe regime is feeling the heat,” Tsvangirai says. “The regime has run out of options. The ruse they sold to the world and the relentless propaganda they poured onto the people can no longer hold.”

The heat has been there on Mugabe since the disputed polls in 2000 and 2002. The international community has screamed itself hoarse about poor governance, the absence of the rule of law and repression. Like a camel in a desert, Mugabe appears to be coping well with the heat.

The heat Tsvangirai alludes to does not appear hot enough to burn the skin on the octogenarian leader’s back. It is business as usual. Zanu PF will push through parliament the NGOs and Electoral Bills. It will continue to punish people uttering even mildly critical things about the president. It will crush all demonstrations by civil society. It will not open the airwaves to the opposition, neither will it repeal Posa or Aippa. This status quo will not evaporate before March next year.

Mugabe has already started campaigning for the party with computers. His party, he told us this week, has been infiltrated by “crooks” (what a confession!) and there is “beginning to be conflict” among its leaders.

Will the MDC take advantage of this seemingly fractious scenario to gain ground?

The political situation is very fluid. Tsvangirai — on his round-the-world tour — could be missing an opportunity to mobilise before the election.

Tsvangirai still has to convince his supporters who cannot demonstrate or wear party T-shirts that “the regime is severely under pressure at home”.

“Pressure from the people is creating political victories for a free and fair election; every week these incremental victories are serving to strengthen our optimism that a free and fair election may indeed be possible next year.”

Hope you are right about this Morgan!

His optimism will be put to the test next month when the party is expected to meet to assess the political climate before deciding on whether to participate in the election or not. That is three months before polling. A decision has to be made and fast too. People need to know where the party stands. The long suspense is slowly turning into confusion about what the MDC is planning.

“We shall be guided by the people, using raw facts on the ground on how far the regime has sought to implement the spirit of Mauritius,” Tsvangirai says. It would be surprising if voters share his confidence that Mugabe will bow to pressure.