Sunday 7 August, 2005
Mbeki’s failure over Zimbabwe
South African Viewpoint By Sipho Zulu
For the past five years Sadc leaders have watched the region’s second largest economy, Zimbabwe, unravel but applauding from the sidelines.
In yet another example of the appalling leadership that has blighted the African continent, they were blinded to what had to be done by a misguided notion of pan-African solidarity.
Can one imagine European Union leaders cheer the British government for dismantling what is the bloc’s second largest economy? Yet this is precisely what Sadc leaders have done. Africa is truly ill served by its leaders. As a result, Zimbabwe’s economy has gone down the drain with all sectors performing badly. Certainly, since the 1950s, ordinary Zimbabweans have never been poorer. A country that had the potential, given its relatively developed economic base and educated population, to give its people a quality of life unequalled on the continent, has been reduced to bankruptcy. Its most educated and skilled citizens are leaving the country in droves. In South Africa, Zimbabweans have replaced Mozambicans as the single largest community of illegal aliens. Zimbabweans have lost confidence in their own country.
Yet Sadc leaders in their infinite wisdom believe President Robert Mugabe’s government is doing just fine. So low are standards in Africa that any country not at war is ipso facto deemed to be doing well. This is not surprising, as some of these leaders have known nothing but economic backwardness and squalor in their own countries. When they visit Harare with its modern buildings and lifts that work, they see prosperity. Most resent the West for using its economic leverage to force multi-party democracy on their very survival that they dare not cock a snook at the West in the way Mugabe does. But they get a vicarious thrill every time the Zimbabwean leader rants and raves about Tony Blair and George Bush. Most of them do not give a damn about good governance and human rights. Again, they resent the linkage between aid, to which they feel entitled, and the observance of what they see as alien values.
Little is therefore expected from the majority of Sadc leaders. South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki is, however, supposed to be an exception. Ever since 1994 when democracy was ushered in, South Africa has claimed the high moral ground. Its new constitution was hailed as the most enlightened in the world, with a Bill of Rights more comprehensive in scope than that of old liberal democracies. It was proclaimed that its foreign policy would be guided by the need to promote and protect human rights throughout the world. Even before he became president in 1999, Mbeki committed himself to a vision of an African renaissance based on the twin pillars of economic prosperity and human rights. Given South Africa’s predominance, it was expected that it would provide bold leadership to catapult the region and continent into a new era.
Moreover, Mbeki is passionate about foreign affairs. In the eyes of the West, he is Africa’s most important leader and a significant voice in the developing world. He enjoys the prestige that goes with his elevated status on the continent. It is a status that imposes onerous responsibilities on him. One of these is to provide bold and imaginative leadership, at the very least in his own backyard – Sadc. This should not be difficult given that in Sadc South Africa accounts for over 70 percent of economic output. It is a responsibility he has shirked, opting instead to hide behind multilateralism. He has allowed himself to be dragged down to the lowest common denominator, instead of being the torchbearer.
When he was faced with his first real challenge, Zimbabwe, his commitment to the values he espouses disintegrated. What is not apparent to many observers is that, behind the face of South Africa’s power and prosperity, lies a leadership riddled with self-doubt. South Africa’s leaders lack the confidence to play a leadership role commensurate with their economic and military power on the continent. Instead, they seek to be part of a consensus dictated by the continent’s most reactionary elements. There is a pervasive view in the ANC that such is their indebtedness to Africa for their liberation that it would be churlish to criticize other brothers and sisters. Many in the ANC were angry with Nelson Mandela for criticizing the late Nigerian military dictator, Sony Abacha. The fact that he was a murderer and kleptomaniac was not important.
The dominant position of whites in South Africa also presents the ANC leadership with problems. Overly sensitive to accusations of pandering to white interests, it shies away from taking positions that could be construed to confirm this. This particularly applies to the Zimbabwean situation because of Mugabe’s cynical use of the race card. The South African government, given the racial dynamics of its own society, is reluctant to publicly criticize Mugabe for fear of being labeled pro-white.
South Africa’s leaders are also aware of the resentments most African countries feel towards their country. When he was still deputy-president, Mbeki wrote a now forgotten letter to Mugabe in which he alluded to this resentment. When South Africa won the right to stage the soccer World Cup in 2010, of the four African countries on the FIFA voting panel, only one, Botswana voted for Pretoria. The South African leadership, sensitive to this resentment, is eager to please. It is also keen not to do anything that opens itself to accusations of bullying. This explains why a feudal monarch, of a vassal state like Swaziland, treats his subjects like serfs with impunity. Yet Swaziland is right in the belly of the South African beast! If the South Africans cannot deal with King Mswati, they certainly do not have the stomach to tackle Mugabe. As a cop out, they hide behind multilateralism. Instead of providing leadership on the Zimbabwe issue, they allow the likes of Tanzania’s Benjamin Mkapa and Namibia’s Sam Nujoma to dictate Sadc policy on the issue.
Many analysts argue that there has never been a better opportunity for Mbeki to resolve the Zimbabwe issue than now. Mugabe has been weakened by an economy that is now being largely held together by the sheer resilience of Zimbabweans. Much has been said about the need to link the loan of R6.7 billion to conditions that force Mugabe to embark on political reform. Internationally, Mugabe’s position has been weakened thanks to Operation Murambatsvina. The Zimbabwean leader’s support among black South Africans has also waned. With the land issue having faded into memory, Mugabe’s alleged human rights violations and the parlous state of the economy is what he is being judged by now. In short, Mugabe has not been more susceptible to pressure than now.
Will Mbeki take advantage? He will not. He will defer to Mugabe’s friends in the region – Tanzania, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique. Mbeki is not prepared to take a position on Zimbabwe not supported by these, in political terms, core Sadc countries. He will therefore accept their position that all is well in Zimbabwe. He will not go beyond meaningless calls for political dialogue with which he intended to deceive G8 countries.
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