Zim" what now?

2008-06-25 00:00

Morgan Tsvangirai’s decision to withdraw from what he has aptly described as “a violent, illegitimate sham of an election” in Zimbabwe confronts the Southern African Development Community (SADC) with both its most shameful moment and its last opportunity to try to save some face from this regional disaster.

I have been in London these past few weeks where the newspapers and television screens have been awash with the most horrific reports and pictures of the appalling violence Robert Mugabe has launched on his own people; of people being savagely beaten in the streets, of homes being burnt and whole communities abducted; of women having their hands, feet and breasts hacked off and their bodies thrown into flames.

I have listened to a defector from the Zimbabwean intelligence services speak on television of his own disgust at the torture he was required to inflict on opposition supporters in special torture camps around Harare.

And I have listened to people here who were involved in the anti-apartheid campaign express shock and disbelief that the SADC countries, especially South Africa which they saw as a beacon of enlightenment after the Mandela Miracle, have allowed this to happen on their own doorstep.

A moment of shame, indeed. For it was not as though this was sprung on us by surprise. It has been obvious for more than a year that Mugabe was not prepared to allow a transfer of power to Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Mugabe said so himself repeatedly, and continued to do so more emphatically than ever as election day drew closer, until finally he declared quite bluntly that he was prepared to go to war to prevent it.

And still the SADC leaders did nothing. They sat around wringing their hands and waiting for their official mediator, Mbeki, to conjure some magic with his “quiet diplomacy.” Even when the MDC became exasperated with Mbeki’s ineffectiveness and broke off relations with him, they still did nothing.

More than a year ago I first suggested in this column that the SADC leaders should give Mugabe a clear advance warning that if he stole this election again, as he had clearly done in 2002 and 2005, they would judge the election to have failed SADC’s guidelines for holding free and fair elections, and declare his regime to be illegitimate and not recognised within this family of nations.

But the argument failed to re- sonate anywhere within our political leadership. When I once ventured to suggest it openly in a small group of specialists debating the subject, it drew hoots of derision as it was considered so preposterous.

Well, as the Afrikaners are wont to say: “Kyk hoe lyk hy nou.”

What is to be done? As the violence and civil unrest continue in Zimbabwe, perhaps even escalating into civil war, we can expect another wave of refugees to flood into neighbouring countries

In South Africa we know from the recent xenophobic attacks that we have reached saturation point in our ability to absorb these refugees. There are an estimated three million Zimbabweans in South Africa, and a major upheaval in the wake of this imploding election could well see another two million pour in. We simply cannot cope with that. It would mean a major destabilisation of our society, with devastating effects on our national image and our economy.

Nor would South Africa be the only country to suffer. Botswana, long regarded as the prime economic success story of this continent, has a population of only about two million, among whom there are now more than 800 000 Zimbabweans. The demographic impact of that is enormous, especially in the northern part of the country where locals are already a minority population.

Even if the unrest subsides with exhaustion the flood of refugees will continue, for there is no prospect of international aid to halt the country’s precipitous economic collapse as long as Mugabe is president. With hyperinflation now accelerating beyond an unimaginable one-million percent and the United Nations saying mass starvation is imminent, the outflow is bound to increase.

Can the SADC leaders really allow Mugabe to destabilise the whole region simply because his ego won’t allow him to accept the democratic will of his own people?

Is his image as a liberation hero really so sacrosanct that a whole sub-continent must sacrifice itself in craven reverence to it?

It is time for SADC to stop pussyfooting around this issue. Its whole credibility is at stake and that of the African Union (AU) with it. Both after all are bound by their own charters not to recognise any regime that comes to power unconstitutionally — which is exactly what the Mugabe regime is doing right now.

It does not even control the legislature, has not sworn in a single one of the MPs who won seats last March, and retains a string of cabinet ministers who lost theirs.

Mbeki is still talking about the political leaders in Zimbabwe getting together to find a solution. Easier said than done when one of those leaders is prepared to kill rather that relinquish power, and the other was reported on Monday night to have sought refuge in the Dutch Embassy in fear of his life.

But at some point it will be necessary, if regional pressure can force the regime to compromise or if only when there is divine intervention, to grant Mugabe his wish that he can rule as long as he lives, a procedure will be needed to ensure the legitimate election of another.

Even at this desperate hour the MDC has said it is willing to enter into negotiations for an interim regime, combining elements of both parties in proportion to their parliamentary representation, to hold the ring while new internationally supervised elections are held.

But not with Mugabe at the helm, of course. Nor any of his military commanders who form the sinister Joint Operational Command (JOC) who are as culpable as he is of the crimes against humanity currently being committed in a country that has suffered too much for too long.

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