Zimbabwe: SADC must act, and now


[This week’s letter is written by the acting leader of the Democratic Alliance, Joe Seremane MP. DA leader Helen Zille is away.]

Today, President Thabo Mbeki is scheduled to rep

ort on the progress of his mediation with Harare to the Southern African Development Community (SADC). This presents South Africa with an excellent opportunity to intervene decisively and positively in the affairs of that unhappy country.

If the President is honest, he will have to admit that the talks he has brokered have gone nowhere, for the selfsame reason that his interventions have failed in the past. President Robert Mugabe has – as usual – refused to show any sign that he is committed to resolving the crisis in his country. It is time to change gears.

Mbeki must tell his fellow SADC leaders that the ZANU-PF delegation – who, like the opposition MDC faction, are being hosted at our expense in Pretoria – have often not even bothered to arrive for the scheduled round of talks. Moreover, our president must alert his fellow regional leaders to the fact that Mugabe has unilaterally proposed constitutional amendments that are the very subject of the mediation.

In light of the failure of his brief, Mr Mbeki must now use the meeting as an opportunity to persuade regional leaders that the time has come for SADC to impose limited sanctions against Harare. These would include travel bans and the freezing of assets of senior ZANU-PF officials in the SADC region.

On the flip side: SADC leaders must also propose a series of steps to be taken if the Mugabe government does agree to the necessary constitutional reforms and the holding of properly monitored elections. Such measures would include the provision of aid and debt relief, as well as agreeing to lobby the international community to provide financial and other assistance.

Lest anyone at SADC be in any doubt, our President must drive the point home. The need for punitive measures has arisen because the Mugabe regime simply does not respond to polite pressure. It is only when Zimbabwe’s president feels that he can no longer act with impunity that he is likely to agree to the kind of reforms that are so desperately required.

In light of the economic and political collapse in Zimbabwe, it is clearly in the self interest of all SADC members to take firm steps against Harare. In the past, SADC leaders have justified their inaction on the pretext that they wanted to maintain stability in Zimbabwe and therefore avoid a surge in refugees coming into their countries.

Now, it is no longer merely South Africa who is bearing the brunt. Given the current dispersal as well as the rate of those fleeing Zimbabwe, it is clear that this excuse wore thin a long time ago.

The situation is so dire that even our Deputy Foreign Minister, Aziz Pahad – normally the chief apologist for the Mugabe government – has expressed alarm at the number of Zimbabweans coming into our country. He is on record as saying that South Africa and neighbouring countries will not be able to sustain the levels of incomers.

The whiff of realism in his words is so rare as to bear quoting in full. He said: “We must do more to deal with the large influx of refugees. If we do not begin to assist Zimbabweans to solve their problems, the flow into South Africa and other neighbours will increase. It is in our interest, nationally and morally, to see what we can do to facilitate.”

Indeed, both South Africa and Zambia are currently experiencing a flood of Zimbabweans across their borders. If not checked, this will ultimately place an intolerable burden on the local infrastructure. Border authorities in Livingstone have said that the number of Zimbabweans crossing daily into Zambia has risen from 60 to 1000.

Failure by government to take proper action and to acknowledge the extent of the refugee problem is forcing local farmers on the South Africa/Zimbabwe border to deal as best they can with an extremely difficult situation. In a security vacuum, they are obliged to patrol their property against the possible depredations of trespassers.

In contrast to the sense of urgency expressed by Pahad, our border authorities in Limpopo are trying to downplay the numbers of refugees. Yet it is clear from unbiased reports (including the DA’s own investigations in the area) that there are at least 3000 people a day crossing the frontier.

That living conditions in Zimbabwe are dire is hardly in dispute: 80% of the populace currently live below the poverty line. People are so desperate in that country that a man was recently beaten to death in a battle over a loaf of bread.

The UN World Programme has announced that it is planning a tenfold increase in the number of beneficiaries of food aid in order to try and avert the looming hunger crisis.

The situation is only likely to get worse – if such a thing is credible. The IMF has predicted that Zimbabwe’s inflation rate could increase from the current 4500% to 100 000% by year’s end. This prospect is so devastating as to be almost impossible to imagine.

The result will be obvious. Even more Zimbabweans, those that still have power in their legs, will flood into neighbouring SADC states.

To conclude: Zimbabwe has now been in crisis for seven long, lean years. The steady erosion, not only of the features of a free society, but of the elements that sustain life itself – food, water, housing, power – has been all too plain for her neighbours to see.

It is frankly a disgrace that President Mbeki and his fellow SADC leaders have allowed the situation to deteriorate this far. If this regional organisation and our government in particular, is serious about avoiding a human catastrophe, they must act at once, and with resolution.

It is not merely that South Africans are tired of the tragedy that is playing itself out to our north; we are all exhausted by the effort of trying to get our government to face the facts. The time for talk – both between the delegates from Zimbabwe, and between SADC leaders about Zimbabwe – has passed. The time for deeds is long overdue.

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