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Comment: Only One Way

HAVEN’T we been here before? “Talks about talks”; the search for a “settlement”;

the palpable need for legitimacy on the part of the incumbents; the public media presenting dialogue as something the opposition seeks; the diehards trying to keep the British and Americans out of the picture?

It all has a familiar ring about it. We need to remind ourselves this is 2008, not 1978.

The difference being of course that after 15 years of sanctions, isolation and civil war the country was in better shape than after eight years of Zanu PF’s sanctions, isolation and civil war.

Still we are treated to the rhetoric of exclusion. This is a uniquely African exercise, we are told. The Europeans and Americans should not interfere. But their help with balance-of-payments support and economic recovery will not be resisted of course, just as their food programmes are keeping thousands of Zimbabweans alive!

It is good to see the leaders in their memorandum of understanding pledging themselves to putting “an end to polarisation, conflict and intolerance”. The parties agreed to refrain from using “abusive language that may incite hostility, political intolerance and ethnic hatred”.

Also welcome is a commitment to the rule of law and “the security of persons and property”.

Seeing is believing, they say. It will of course take more than the proposed two weeks to change the habits of a lifetime. The state media continues to abuse the government’s critics, even claiming the victims of militia brutality inflicted their own injuries.

This sort of mendacity cannot be allowed to persist if the negotiations are to be taken seriously. The media needs to be able to report fully and honestly on the nation’s problems before any recovery can take place.

The big gain of the past week has been the agreement of the UN and AU to come to the table. Their monitoring of the situation on the ground as part of a “reference group” will ensure that the perpetrators of violence are correctly identified. But they cannot of course substitute for a professional and non-partisan police force and armed forces command that the country needs as a priority.

Commentators have identified discussion around the land and sanctions issues as potentially problematic for both sides. This should not necessarily be the case. All parties have said there can be no going back on land reform, and we cannot see any reason why Zanu PF would resist a full and professional audit of who got what in the chaos of the past eight years. Future land reform cannot proceed on the basis of lawlessness.

As for sanctions, there is some expectation that the MDC can snap its fingers and deliver significant changes to other countries’ legislation. The sanctions measures, fortified this week, were imposed in direct response to electoral violence. Once the root cause is removed, so will the sanctions. It really is that simple.

President Mugabe on Monday provided as an example of the two main parties working together the legislative amendments made to Aippa, Posa and the Electoral Act. But, it must be noted, the amendment to Posa did not prevent nearly all opposition rallies being banned after March 29 while journalists were arrested despite changes to Aippa.

Mugabe reversed changes to the Electoral Act as soon as they had been passed.

Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission ignored its own mandate to ensure all parties were treated equally in terms of access to the media, that news reporting in the public media was factually accurate and fair, that political parties were accorded a right of reply to allegations made, and that political parties that encouraged violence were not promoted.

What did the ZEC do to assure the public it was promoting conditions conducive to free, fair and democratic elections? What transparency has there been in the commission’s relations with the public or the media? How do they explain the five-week wait for an announcement of the presidential poll result in April and May?

The run-off showed, if evidence were needed, that elections in Zimbabwe desperately need an independent supervisory body. The same goes for law enforcement and the judiciary.

A two-week conference isn’t going to fix any of these glaring shortcomings. What we need is a sea change in political culture. That will only come with the passage of time and intense hard work. But what we can be pleased about is that Zimbabwe’s failings were exposed in such a way as to induce a sense of horror by our neighbours and friends. They all at last saw what needs to be done — and quickly. With the UN and AU involved and an energised Thabo Mbeki, under siege at home, there can be no dragging of heels.

There is now an international, regional and domestic consensus.

Above all Mugabe has met his Waterloo in the form of a collapsing economy. The days of fist-waving are over. From here we can only go forward, however carefully.

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