Down to the wire

2008-07-18 00:00

In any crisis there comes a moment when all parties to a situation must face reality and make decisions. The crisis in Zimbabwe is at just such a juncture. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the country will be decided in the next few days.

We have just seen the failure of the Great 8 (G8) states to persuade their international colleagues to back tough sanctions on Zimbabwe. This was partly engineered by South Africa who rushed the commencement of talks about talks in South Africa so as to be able to say at the United Nations (UN) that “talks” were under way and the Security Council should give the parties involved time to try to resolve the crisis along the lines agreed by the African Union (AU).

By doing so, Thabo Mbeki has both played the ball back to the Western states who backed the tough stance and also put himself in a situation where he has full responsibility for the next play — in fact, the final set in this particular match. He may live to regret this particular outcome.

Mbeki has come back from the G8 summit in a hurry to get things moving. He virtually forced the start of talks about talks last week and after two days of fruitless discussion he set up a meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Organ on Politics, Defence and Security chaired by Angola, now scheduled to take place today.

It seems to me that all those involved — from the international donors who are vital to any recovery process, to the SADC and the AU, and indeed the G8 leadership — are all singing from the same hymn sheet. The call is for a transitional government with a limited mandate and life (maximum of two years) with Robert Mugabe as a titular president and Morgan Tsvangirai as a substantive head of government or prime minister. The power structure of the new government is to be based on the outcome of the March 29 election.

Clearly, such a transitional arrangement is not acceptable to the new power brokers in the present regime. The Joint Operations Command (JOC), made up of a military junta with elements of the Zanu-PF party, know full well that this would represent the end of the road for them in every respect. If they were to accept such an outcome they would have to either go into exile or seek refuge in a country that agreed to have them and to provide them with security and protection from prosecution.

The Zanu-PF negotiators know this and Mbeki is fully aware of just what he is up against. He knows that neither Mugabe nor his JOC associates can be trusted to abide by any decisions reached at the negotiating table. Therefore, what is at stake is not just the issue of negotiations themselves but also the future and security of the men (and women?) who have orchestrated Zimbabwe’s free fall into collapse and international ostracism.

The JOC have their own ideas —they want to keep to their present course. If left to their own devices they will dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections in August or September, maintain or intensify the violence and the campaign against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and even deepen the crisis. They do not care about the economy — a small group of some 2 000 individuals can live well on the mines alone thank you — or the human welfare of the millions of people who live in the cities and towns.

So we are down to the wire. For South Africa the issues are clear. As I write, millions of Zimbabweans are planning their flight to other countries. A lethal cocktail of circumstances is driving this process — the violence and genocidal attacks on ordinary people across the country, the economic collapse that is making it impossible to live on a salary even if you have a job and the almost complete absence of basic foods, even if you can afford them. I would say that right now the majority of those who live in Zimbabwe have no choice but to consider flight — and South Africa will be the preferred destination.

This forced migration could become the largest mass movement of people in recent African history and all the signs are there that it is under way. Such a migration would tip South Africa into instability and chaos as the squatter camps resist the influx.

The United States and the United Kingdom were quite right in their analysis of the crisis in Zimbabwe as a threat to regional stability and peace. Mbeki knows this and partly because of his own actions, he now has to face the Zimbabwe crisis without Western allies at his back. He is left with SADC and the AU.

That is where the Zimbabwe crisis belongs and the biggest test of the Mbeki presidency is about to take place. Does he have the political courage to use his power as president of South Africa and a key player in the SADC region, to enforce compliance across the Limpopo?

There is no confidence that he will do so, but we may yet be in for a surprise.

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