Cautious optimism

2008-09-17 00:00

On Monday Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai signed a power-sharing agreement. Mugabe will remain president and head the cabinet, with Tsvangirai as prime minister, and Arthur Mutambara, leader of a breakaway faction of the MDC, as deputy prime minister.

Although those present greeted the signing with enthusiasm, hundreds of Zanu-PF and MDC supporters outside the building clashed and had to be separated by riot police. This is surely an indication that it would be inappropriate to treat the event with anything more than cautious optimism, a view confirmed by Mugabe’s behaviour after the signing, as shown in many international televised reports. For, broken-record-like, he yet again harshly criticised “colonialists”, especially Britain and the United States, blaming them for all of Zimbabwe’s ills and claiming that they had conspired to oust him. And, despite the beaming handshakes, he seemed unable to bring himself to use Tsvangirai’s name, as if in a perverse belief that to name the man who is now a senior member of government would be to accord him power — and diminish his own. On their side the MDC must have wondered what Mugabe was doing there at all: this year’s election debacle had made it clear that a majority of Zimbabweans wanted him gone.

This augurs poorly for a smooth passage towards democracy and economic recovery. Further, even “cautious optimism” may well turn to pessimism when one assesses Mbeki’s role. For years as the world watched Mugabe wreck the Zimbabwean economy, starving and impoverishing the people and driving millions of them to leave, Mbeki and his “quiet diplomacy” were ridiculed: in all that time he failed to respond to calls for decisive action, even in the face of total collapse. So what suddenly impelled him to abandon his softly-softly tactics and to force the issue? One possibility is that having lost power and credibility at home since Polokwane, and having most recently been humiliated over the Zuma affair, he is desperate to save face. The forcing of the Zimbabwe deal may be an attempt to do that, thus, when his now discredited presidency ends, securing himself a future as, perhaps, a roving diplomat in Africa.

In other words, it may be that the Zimbabwe signing was not the natural outcome of intelligent debate arriving at true agreement, but something artificial, in which cracks will very soon appear. This is surely not a secure foundation on which to rebuild Zimbabwe, a task requiring the full co-operation of all involved, an acknowledgment of past mistakes, and unremitting hard work.

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