It is not just that our International Relations minister Maite Nkoane-Mashabane shared her impression of Mugabe as “a crazy old man” with US diplomats, but that she also expressed the view that support should be given to Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Why, then, has the South African government, the regional superpower and by far the most influential player in this drawn-out saga, not done exactly that? Why, instead, has it insisted on protecting and indeed assisting the “crazy old man” and his supporters, who are responsible for the continuing human tragedy that is Zimbabwe?
To some degree one recognised, even while not condoning, former president Thabo Mbeki’s compulsive need to spring to the defence of incumbents when they were challenged in African political contests. His stance violated every ethical value of our long struggle for democratic liberation, but it happened to be a personal obsession of our curiously insecure second democratically elected president.
But what about President Jacob Zuma? Why has he inherited the same timidity in dealing with Mugabe? He owes him nothing, and certainly his alliance partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions doesn’t — given the abusive treatment Mugabe’s thugs dished out to its leaders when they tried to visit their fellow trade unionists in Zimbabwe a few years ago.
According to some press reports, Nkoane-Mashabane intended making noises of protest about the embarrassing WikiLeaks cables when she met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington the other day.
Short of a fresh flood of these diplomatic leaks, I guess we’ll never know how that exchange went — if it went at all. But I can imagine at least one possible riposte from the sharp-tongued Clinton: “Well now, Madam Minister, perhaps you can tell me why your government doesn’t put its money where your mouth is?”
Diplomatic niceties aside, what makes this issue topical is the contrasting manner in which the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) is confronting the issue of President Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step down after losing Ivory Coast’s presidential election last week to Alassane Ouattara by what the United Nations has called an “unchallengeable margin”.
In a strongly worded statement, Ecowas has called on Gbagbo to step aside, and has formally recognised Ouattara as the legitimate president of the country.
Compare that with the limp-wristed approach of our own Southern African Development Community (Sadc) when Mugabe so blatantly refused to step down after clearly suffering a first-round defeat at the hands of the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe’s 2008 election. The word in diplomatic circles is that Mugabe was ready to go on national television and concede defeat publicly, but his security chiefs stepped in and ordered him not to, undertaking to rig the figures to deny a first-round result and then use their own violent methods to ensure Mugabe won the runoff.
The not-so-crazy old man bought the idea.
Aware of this, Tsvangirai pulled out of the contest, leaving Mugabe to run, in effect, unchallenged.
Sadc didn’t recognise the result, but instead of taking the tough stand Ecowas is now taking, Mbeki pussy- footed around the issue and brokered a so-called unity government with elaborate requirements for joint decision- making, which Mugabe has never honoured — and which Sadc, as guarantor of the deal, has never sought seriously to enforce.
Now Mugabe says the unity deal is a failure and wants to end it by calling an election at about the middle of next year, which he no doubt plans to rig again in the confident expectation that Sadc will let him get away with it as it has done before.
I often hear it said that there is little
South Africa can do about the Zimbabwe crisis. That a military solution is obviously out of the question, and South Africa can’t close its borders or impose other sanctions without doing grievous damage to other neighbouring countries, and indeed to the innocent citizens of Zimbabwe.
For years I have disagreed with this contention — and now Ecowas has shown the way in the Ivory Coast case that I have long advocated Sadc should take on Zimbabwe. Which is to tell Mugabe that unless he runs a free and fair election, following all the Sadc’s clearly spelt-out requirements for that, which includes free campaigning and media coverage well before polling day, the regional organisation would not recognise the outcome.
If he retains power in violation of the outcome, or breaks any of the rules for fair electioneering, Sadc and the African Union of which it is part, will not recognise his government. It will be classified as an illegitimate regime. No member of that regime will then hold diplomatic status if they enter any Sadc state, which will mean any of them coming to SA for medical treatment, for example, will run the risk of arrest on international criminal charges as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet was when he checked into a UK hospital in 1998.
This effectively is the shot Ecowas has fired across the bows of Gbagbo. And because it is such a potent action by the regional organisation, it has encouraged a barrage of additional threats from the international community far stronger than anything that has been directed at Mugabe.
It remains to be seen whether it will bring Gbagbo down. He is a ruthlessly determined character with a force of about 9 000 well-equipped troops loyal to him, and it looks as though his tactic may be to threaten a resumption of the civil war he ignited after coming to power after messy elections in 2000.
But the West Africans seem to be a more resolute bunch than we southerners: they have already dispatched the Liberian monster, Charles Taylor, to The Hague for trial at a Special Court set up there for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, and some of the Ecowas people are using tough language about Gbagbo. Such as Mohammed Ibn Chambas, a senior Ghanaian diplomat and former Ecowas president, who said it was time African politicians proved they were in tune with the times.
“It’s a test case for West Africa, indeed for all of Africa,” Chambas said. “We need to say that we mean it when we say we have turned the page.”
Take note, President Zuma! And while you are doing so take note, too, that nothing could boost SA’s economic growth rate and reduce our unemployment more speedily than a swift end to the Zimbabwe crisis.
Zimbabwe has been a cosmic black hole in the midst of a potentially vibrant economic universe in this well-endowed part of the continent for years — all because of the craziness of that one “old man” and his band of greedy but fearful hangers-on.
Summon the political will to fix it, Mr President, and you will see SA’s economy take off as the engine of a revitalising region far faster than any of your ministers’ various growth plans can ever hope to achieve.
It is time to turn the page, for our own sake as well as theirs.
- Sparks is a veteran journalist and political analyst contactable at www.businessday.co.za.