A precedent for how to deal with despots

2009-06-20 00:00

THE most important bellwether of what kind of administration President Jacob Zuma will deliver domestically is how he handles appointments to the judiciary. In the international arena, however, the first test is the issue of Zimbabwe.

Prior to Zuma’s ascent to power, his faction was outspoken in their criticism of the “quiet diplomacy” of former president Thabo Mbeki towards Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s government. The Congress of SA Trade Unions and the SA Communist Party toyi-toyied against Mugabe and threatened to blockade Beit Bridge.

Zuma accused Mbeki of being lenient on dictators and last year publicly criticised Mugabe as being one of those African political leaders who “refuse to bow out and try to change the constitution to accommodate themselves”.

Once Zuma gained power, however, the critical tone muted.

The question asked by observers was whether Zuma’s criticism of Mugabe signalled a possible change in the African National Congress government’s policy, or whether it was more to do with the pleasure to be had in riling Mbeki.

Zuma this past weekend cast some light on his intentions. Without mentioning Mugabe by name, Zuma proposed a deal whereby dictatorial African presidents will be granted immunity against prosecution for human rights abuses, on condition that they step down.

Zuma argues that dictators will not relinquish power if they fear that their opponents will “deal” with them. “The world has changed. Therefore let us do things differently and not emphasise punishment.”

It is an approach that holds little appeal to the purists. Organisations such as the International Bar Association, the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Human Rights Commission oppose such deals on the grounds that they undermine international law and set a dangerous precedent of negotiability.

At home, the Democratic Alliance’s Kenneth Mubu says that we must not lower the bar for human rights in Africa. Zuma’s willingness to countenance such a deal is symptomatic of the ANC’s indifference to the principle of accountability and its long retreat from the Nelson Mandela era during which human rights were protected, to excusing and protecting rights’ abusers on Mbeki’s watch.

In this struggle between principle and realpolitik, there are compelling arguments in favour of Zuma’s approach.

To start with, the purists live in a perfect world where the baddies get their come-uppance, whereas the victims of Mugabe in Zimbabwe or Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda will suffer by their millions and die by their thousands waiting for the endlessly postponed judgement day.

Unfortunately, these international rights organisations hold little sway in a country such as Zimbabwe. Nor is a Western world distracted by financial meltdown able to exert much pressure. Then there is the influence for ill of an increasingly Africa-dominant China – as indifferent to human rights as it is to animal welfare – and doing a deal with the devil becomes less repulsive.

Human rights is not just a matter of theory. To deny relief to a people groaning under the weight of dictatorship because it offends our sanctimonious sense of how the world should work, is inexcusable.

The sceptics should be reminded that South Africa comes to the argument from a unique perspective. Immunity from prosecution for its leadership thugs was crucial to the National Party agreeing to democratic elections in 1994. The caveat is that the Zuma government has to make it clear that any deal in Zimbabwe — or Swaziland, Uganda, Angola, Sudan, or wherever — is a once-off shake-the-tree harvesting of an existing crop of bad apples. It should emphasise that this is not the way it intends to conduct its foreign affairs into the future.

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