Editor’s Memo

Mbeki’s mantras

Iden Wetherell

I WAS interested to read President Thabo Mbeki’s remarks about Zimbabwe in his regular contribution to the ANC’s online magazine, ANC Today. <
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He commented on his visit to Harare last week and traced the roots of the current crisis. The first thing I noticed was his discomfort with tendencies that are very much the norm in a democratic society.


He complained of people “who insisted on imposing their own agendas on us”.


“They pretended to know everything about what we would say to the political leadership of Zimbabwe, raising unjustified expectations that reflected their wishes,” Mbeki complained.


These detractors, he suggested, were firm in the belief that South Africa had the right to issue instructions to others.


Leaving aside the obvious point that in a plural society you have a number of forces at work pressing their agendas on government, Mbeki shouldn’t be unduly worried about the Zimbabwean public’s expectations of him!

What worries us is the absence of a clear principled lead from South Africa.

What happened to the ethical guidelines on foreign policy set out in the mid-1990s but now apparently forgotten? These include respect for human rights and democratic governance.


Perhaps because of his own sensitivity about the fate of post-liberation elites, Mbeki seems to have difficulty admitting that Zimbabwe’s leadership has betrayed its people. Instead he suggests it spent too much money addressing colonial anomalies and got itself into trouble that way. It was good intentions that sealed Zanu PF’s fate, not corruption or tyranny, he argues.


Mbeki claims that the Zimbabwe government sought to advance the “socio-economic interests of the liberated majority”. To meet this challenge, he said, the government ploughed resources into education and healthcare. With this expansion of services, the civil service wage bill increased.


This led the government into difficulties, he said. By the end of the first decade of Independence it was clear that the growth path chosen by the government was unsustainable. Total public sector debt stood at 90% of GDP.


“Contrary to what some in our country now claim, the economic crisis currently affecting Zimbabwe did not originate from the desperate actions of a reckless political leadership or from corruption,” Mbeki declared. “It arose from a genuine concern to meet the needs of the black poor.”


Mbeki used this point to send a message to his critics in South Africa “where some who call themselves the unique representatives of the poor have been seeking to oblige us to follow the same policies that led to the economic crisis in Zimbabwe. We have refused to do this.”


“In the end we must pay for what we consume,” Mbeki admonished. And he warned that the longer Zimbabwe’s problems remain unresolved, the more entrenched poverty will become, and with it, social instability.


This is all fair enough as far as it goes. The Mugabe government did seek to redress historical anomalies by expanding education and healthcare in the 1980s. It did get itself into difficulties by failing to match income and expenditure. But Mbeki has studiously ignored the cost of corruption and mismanagement that stemmed directly from an absence of political accountability. That includes a parasitic public sector and military that provided little more than sheltered employment to the government’s supporters.


A post-liberation aristocracy fed like locusts on the land and made it clear it was their right to do so.


“The country owes us,” Mugabe said when justifying the Political Parties (Finance) Act.


That was the entrenched mentality that spawned intolerance of dissenting views and led to the pillaging of the War Victims Compensation Fund, the pay-for-your-house scheme, and the DDF borehole project.


Nobody was prosecuted. Indeed, they held on to their ill-gotten gains. So much for the government’s “genuine concern to meet the needs of the black poor”!


Nobody wants the South African government to “dictate” to Zimbabwe. But we do expect it to spell out those principles by which it is guided. How does it respond to political murder, police torture, electoral manipulation and the subversion of the rule of law? Why is it so quiet on these issues or in the case of electoral fraud, almost complicit?


“We remain convinced that the people of Zimbabwe must decide their future,” Mbeki says in his ANC Today contribution.


Yes indeed, we would like the chance to do so. Please tell Mugabe’s militia gangs, the CIO, police and Tobaiwa Mudede. We would love to have an Independent Electoral Commission like South Africa’s.


In fairness, Mbeki played an important role last Monday in dealing with Mugabe’s claims to legitimacy and his demand that the MDC drop its court petition. Those will all now be matters for future negotiation, the three visiting presidents decided. In the meantime Mugabe is recognised as de facto head of state. That is the formula that will enable the talks to go forward.


The South African and Nigerians governments will have an important role in mediating those talks that will ultimately lead to constitutional changes and fresh elections after parliamentary approval. Zanu PF may be in denial about this outcome. But it is now the goal towards which all parties are working.


Mbeki’s contribution towards that goal has been significant and he deserves some recognition among the brickbats. All he needs to do now is stop apologising to his party for putting the squeeze on Mugabe. If he favours good governance, human rights and the rule of law he shouldn’t be too shy to say so.


That means abandoning ANC mantras about how we got into this mess. Believe me, it wasn’t good intentions that got us here.


Perhaps the best thing to do would be to ask Zimbabweans what they think and invite them to put their answers on the ANC Today website. Or might that prove ideologically inconvenient?

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