Politics is a Power Game

I remember September 23rd 1976 as if it was yesterday. I had been in the political trenches since 1965 when I first started trying to effect change in what was then Rhodesia. Despite all our efforts over the previous 11 years we had made no progress and it looked as if Ian Smith and the Rhodesian Front would carry on with the struggle until the country was a smoking ruin.

The war had started in earnest in 1972 and was now raging across the Country; our political and economic isolation was nearly total. In 1973 I had met Ian Smith with another 35 young Rhodesians – all professionals in their own domain and we had tried to persuade Mr Smith to negotiate a deal with the international Community.

We had stated to him that in our view, he would be able to win the battles on the ground, but would lose the war and that without a negotiated transition, the consequences could be disastrous. At the time he had rejected our analysis and said to us that “we” would win the war and in so doing were saving southern Africa from communist incursions. After that meeting 27 of the 35 left the country as they felt that the war was senseless and a lost cause.

In September 1976 we heard that the American Secretary of State was in Pretoria and had invited Mr Smith and six of his closest colleagues to South Africa for talks. We had no idea what was on the agenda, but realized that possibly the most powerful man on earth after the President of the United States, could not be in the region on anything less than an errand to see that real change was brought about In Rhodesia.

We now know from historical records that Mr Kissinger had visited several key African leaders on his way south and then approached the President of South Africa to arrange a meeting with Mr Smith. Smith was immensely popular with whites in southern Africa and the President knew he was on thin ice, but at the same time he recognised that he had to accommodate the Americans. Mr Smith arrived in Pretoria – watched some rugby at Loftus and then met with Kissinger. The Secretary of State outlined a plan for a transition to majority rule and said that he had the support of African leaders for the plan. Smith and his team held a private meeting and then went back into the meeting with Kissinger and rejected the plan.

The Rhodesians walked out of the meeting and found the South African President waiting for them. His message was brief and to the point. He said to the Rhodesian Prime Minister that if they did not go along with the American plan, South Africa would withdraw all assistance. In a few minutes it was all over. The Rhodesian team flew home and I sat with a few of my activist friends in Salisbury that Sunday evening in September 1976 and listened as Ian Smith told the country that he had accepted majority rule. From that day onwards he played only a marginal role in what was to become a three year transition to Independence in 1980.

It was a salutary lesson in the exercise of real power in politics and since then I have witnessed this use of power to secure a change in direction of an authoritarian State several times. It was used by Mrs Thatcher in South Africa several years later, with a similar, although radically better outcome than had been the case in Zimbabwe. In Myanmar it was the Chinese who withdrew support for the Military Government that had ruled the country for 30 years or more, that triggered the release of opposition leaders from detention, a negotiated transition and then a democratic election.

Recently in the Gambia we had an example of hard power in use to resolve a crisis. In this case it was regional leaders in West Africa who threatened the use of military force to persuade a long term authoritarian leader who had lost an election, to step down and allow his opponent to be sworn in as President.

Here in Zimbabwe we have been in a 16 years struggle to overthrow an authoritarian, quasi military government that has entrenched itself and controls all the levers of hard power. In 2000, we in the MDC; committed ourselves to a non violent, lawful campaign to democratically remove the regime from power. How naïve we were. Instead of bowing to the will of the people, the regime in Harare has unleashed a campaign of terror, violence and intimidation and has used all the hard power instruments at their disposal, including the Courts and the Civil Administration, to force the rural and urban poor to bow down to their demands. No price has been too hard to pay – they have wrecked the economy, destroyed our currency and created conditions of poverty and suffering so great that I estimate that 3 million people have died prematurely in Zimbabwe since 2000 and life expectancy has halved.

Yet those with power have sat on their hands or simply watched from the sidelines or wrung their hands in frustration. The one African country which could sort out the regime in Harare in five minutes, South Africa, has not been even neutral in this struggle. In 2003 they argued with Mugabe and tried to get him (like our small group in 1973) to change direction – warning him that his chosen course was going to lead to a collapse in the economy.

When Mugabe brushed the South African view aside, they did nothing and when the inevitable happened in 2007 and the Zimbabwe economy collapsed, they intervened – not so much to turn Mugabe onto a new path, but to save him from his own cupidity. When faced with a clear democratic victory for Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC in 2008, they connived with Mugabe to allow a disastrous run off and then when that failed they forced the MDC into a Government of National Unity.

What that series of events showed again, was that real power, when exercised with care and firmness, can effect real change in an authoritarian regime. When Mbeki was relieved of his responsibilities by the ANC just days after he inaugurated the GNU in Harare, we were left to the mercy of a new player, Mr Jacob Zuma. Since then the South Africans have shown little appetite for any sort of intervention in Zimbabwe and our position has grown steadily worse, until today we are back in the nightmare years of 2007/8. Unlike 1976 and 1994 when the international community intervened in Rhodesia and South Africa, there is no appetite for intervention in a tiny country like Zimbabwe.

The tragedy is that we live in a global village and no one can stand aside and say that what happens in my neighbor’s yard is of no concern to me. We all matter and the self imposed destruction of the Zimbabwean economy with its associated flight of people to greener pastures and safe havens, is now an international phenomenon. We are not shooting each other – yet – and let’s only hope and pray that someone with the capacity to influence events here takes an interest and does something to get the authorities in power to change the way they are doing things before we start shooting each other.

Right now we are trying to get an authoritarian, quasi military Junta under dictatorial control to agree to change the rules for the next election. If they agree they will lose control of the State and with it any security over ill gotten gains or personal security. They will not be able to use the State to pillage and control State resources. Why should they do that? Has any dictatorial regime anywhere in history done that voluntarily? Did the wall come down in Berlin by mutual agreement; do we really think that de Klerk led South Africa out of the wilderness without real coercion being used?

The danger in Zimbabwe of regional and international power brokers leaving us to our own devices, is that either we will slide into anarchy or become an African North Korea. I have no doubt that only the use of real power here can effect change and give Zimbabweans the chance to choose their own government and to heal their land. The only question is who will step up the plate before it is too late?

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  1. wilbert

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