Why is Mbeki ‘encouraged’ by developments in Zimbabwe?

PRESIDENT Thabo Mbeki is said by spokesman Mukoni Ratshitanga to be very, very encouraged by the fact that Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change has not given up on the prospect of reaching a negotiated settlement with the totalitarian regime that refuses to relinquish control of the country, said Business Day, in a leader on Tuesday.

It is hard to understand what he finds so encouraging, especially since Mbeki’s own failures as a diplomat, mediator and regional leader have played no small part in pushing Zimbabwe down the blind alley in which it now finds itself. When the choice was between violent suppression of free political activity followed by a rigged election, or handing victory to the Mugabe dictatorship by refusing to participate, there is precious little to be positive about.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has been criticised for waiting too long before pulling out of Friday’s scheduled presidential runoff, thereby exposing his supporters to unnecessary violence. Certainly, it was clear from immediately after the disputed first poll that President Robert Mugabe intended using the run off to reverse the setback caused by the loss of Zanu (PF)’s majority in Parliament.

However, as has been pointed out repeatedly by this newspaper, the region’s habit of appeasing Mugabe left Tsvangirai between a rock and a hard place. With SA doing everything in its power to protect Mugabe from international pressure and the Southern African Development Community content to put its faith in Mbeki’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, the only alternative to a highly flawed democratic process was vague talk of a negotiated government of national unity.

Given Mugabe’s track record of reneging on deals, his open rejection of any process that entails handing over power, and the climate of fear that has been created through his brutal use of militias to intimidate and kill opposition supporters, Tsvangirai can hardly be blamed for being sc eptical. Nor can he be blamed for refusing to put more of his supporters’ lives on the line, especially since it was increasingly obvious that the outcome of the poll would be rigged.

Mbeki’s refusal to condemn Mugabe’s brutal tactics, and his eagerness to encourage a settlement that subverts the will of the Zimbabwean people, reveal a chilling cynicism towards the viability of democracy as a system of government in Africa. Mugabe is on the verge of being rewarded for quite literally sticking to his guns; given the similar manner in which the democratic process was manipulated in Kenya recently to avoid further bloodshed, this does not augur well for the continent.

The only real, albeit faint, encouraging signs are indications that regional leaders are finally losing patience with Mbeki, and that the broader international community has reached the end of its tether too. The United Nations needs to play a more active role, along with the African Union and those regional leaders that have broken ranks with Mugabe, to ensure that whatever agreement is reached will eventually lead to free and fair elections.

Quiet diplomacy has been thoroughly discredited, and SA risks being rendered irrelevant if it continues to insist on a softly-softly approach to Mugabe. If Mbeki refuses to be part of the solution by take a principled stand against tyranny, he must not be surprised if he is considered part of the problem, and treated as such.

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