The need to talk

2008-05-01 00:00

It was Winston Churchill who said that “jaw-jaw is better then war-war”, and most people would take for granted that, in situations where there is a danger that hostilities might break out, discussion among or with the competing parties is essential. But political life is not as simple as that. Nor are leading politicians always wise.

I want to discuss briefly two current situations where a refusal to hold discussions is leading to an alarming slide towards further conflict. The two situations are quite different; political situations almost always are.

In the first case, President Thabo Mbeki was asked by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to mediate in the dispute between Robert Mugabe and the opposition MDC, but he has failed to do so. Mbeki cannot be accused of refusing to talk to Mugabe; on a recent visit to Harare he spoke to him and was caught, in a memorable photograph, smiling and holding his hand. But it is clear that there has been no serious discussion between the two men. If Mbeki had tried to confront Mugabe with a few political and social realities, it is unthinkable that he would have smiled so happily in front of the cameras or would have gone on to Lusaka, London and New York to proclaim, with calm complacency, that the situation in Zimbabwe was under control.

One doesn’t know what is to happen in Zimbabwe, but at the time of writing the prospect seems bleak. If Mbeki had had the courage to act in a statesmanlike way, the situation would probably have been considerably less threatening. International crises always have far-reaching consequences. Besides the tragedy of Zimbabwe and its people, Mbeki’s mistake will have a devastating effect not only on his own reputation but also, far more importantly, on the prestige of southern Africa and indeed of Africa itself. There was a poignant irony as Mbeki chaired the meeting of the Security Council: he pleaded for Africa, but his silence on Zimbabwe undermined what he was saying.

In the second case, the United States and Israel refuse to talk to Hamas, which controls Gaza. They say that they cannot and will not talk to Hamas (even though it was democratically elected) because it is a terrorist organisation. It is true that Hamas has adopted a very tough stance towards Israel and the U.S., but then the latter have from the first adopted a fierce and unsympathetic stance towards the Palestinians. They forget that the ANC and the IRA-Sinn Fein were once dismissed by the dominant powers within their territories as terrorist organisations.

Ex-president Jimmy Carter has wisely held talks with Hamas, much to the irritation of Israel and the United States. Israel has said that Carter’s meeting was a failure because Hamas made no concessions, but of course concessions are made at roundtable discussions, not at preliminary talks. Sooner or later the two dominant powers will have to face the reality of conflict and the only humane and viable way of overcoming it. In the meantime many people, almost all of them Palestinians, are being killed.

One of the reasons why the dominant powers are holding back is that they realise, as so often in situations of this sort, that by allowing proper discussions they would be giving up their hegemony, their ability to call the shots and lay down the law.

When I first sketched this article, I had a third case: China’s refusal, in the face of world criticism of its treatment of Tibet, to hold talks with the Dalai Lama, the exiled political and religious leader of the world’s Tibetan community. It seemed clear that China’s deter-mination not to budge on this issue was undermining its attempt to use the Beijing Olympic Games as an occasion for presenting itself in an attractive light to the world upon which it has begun to have such a huge economic influence. It was another example of an unwillingness to concede anything from a position of strength. But China has now had the wisdom to change its mind on this issue.

It has announced that it is soon to hold preliminary talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama.

It is perhaps too early to proclaim China’s decision as a victory for morality and common sense; there is some danger that a loosening of its tight reins may be a temporary ploy adopted for strategic reasons.

Let us hope that this doesn’t prove to be so. Little escapes the eyes of the world nowadays, and it would be pointless for China to enhance its reputation now, only to let it collapse in a few months’ time.

If China really has changed its mind, it will be an encouraging sign for enlightened people throughout the world. And there may be some long-term hope in my first two cases too. Mugabe cannot now last for very long, and the new leadership of the ANC seems not to be following the Mbeki line on Zimbabwe. And in the U.S., the refusal to deal with Hamas may well come to an end if Barack Obama be-comes the next president.

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