Monday, April 04, 2005

One of the many tragedies involved with the Pope's death is that the news of his passing quickly drowned out the coverage of last week's parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe.

The results and significance of those elections:
With all 120 legislative races decided, Mr. Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, won 78 seats, versus 41 for the M.D.C. One seat was won by an independent.

The outcome was a blow to the opposition, which won 57 seats in the last election, in 2000, and had been predicting gains in this week's balloting. Because Mr. Mugabe personally fills 30 other seats in the 150-member Parliament, the election results mean that his party has gained the two-thirds majority it needs to change Zimbabwe's Constitution as it chooses.
Whether or not the elections were fraudulent, as the M.D.C. claims, is beside the point. When you deliberately starve your people so you can use the prospect of food to get them to vote for you, demanding vote recounts amounts to requesting aspirin to treat heart failure.

Much more to the point is why the international community is doing so little to confront Mugabe's government. After all, it's been evident for a while now that the opposition movement inside Zimbabwe simply isn't capable of reforming the country from within; and now that Zanu-PF has gained the ability to change the country's constitution itself, what little hope there once was for internal reform is all but gone.

So why has there been so little external pressure for reform?

The quick answer is that most countries are determined to follow South Africa's lead on this, for reasons having to do with southern Africa's all-too-recent colonialist past. Appropriately or not, the sense is that "regime change" in Zimbabwe can happen legitimately only if the pressure for it comes from within the continent. Since South Africa is the one country stable enough and strong enough to take on Mugabe effectively -- not to mention that South Africa has actively sought to exert its regional dominance over the past few years -- any effective pressure for regime change in Harare needs to come from Pretoria first.

Yet South Africa has done nothing but sit on its hands. The Mbeki administration has refused to take a tough line on Zimbabwe, even though the country's misrule is hurting its own currency and sending a flood of illegal immigrants across the border.

Why have Mbeki and others remained silent?

Initially, the standard reason had to do with the moral obligation the leadership of South Africa's ruling party, the ANC, felt to look the other way. Many among that leadership either fought with Mugabe prior to 1980 or trained in his country thereafter, so it's not surprising that in the late 1990s -- when Mugabe started to become noticeably worse -- the ANC's top brass explained their inaction by appealing to the solidarity of southern Africa's relatively recent liberation movements.

By 2000, however, Mugabe's actions had reached the point where appeals to solidarity were no longer enough. At that time, his regime had just begun both actively reappropriating white-owned farmland and, more often, refusing to arrest veterans who took over whatever land they pleased. The ensuing anarchy was disastrous. The short-term effect was to destabilize the region generally and plunge the country itself into a financial crisis (when I was there in 2001, even government banks refused to buy Zimbabwean dollars). The long-term effect was even worse: since most of the resettlers do not know how to farm industrially, there's been a massive food shortage.

Rather than changing its tune, however, South Africa has continued to turn a blind eye to Mugabe's transgressions. Not only has the ANC leadership maintained the solidarity defence, but because the M.D.C. posted encouraging gains in the 2000 parliamentary elections, they've also been able to argue that Mugabe's regime isn't so dominant that reform can't happen internally.

Consequently, the real significance of last week's elections is that South Africa's rationale for not confronting Mugabe now rests squarely on the solidarity argument alone. And simply put, that argument is no longer enough. Mugabe may have led a legitimate liberation movement once, but at present he's wrought a form of tyranny far more insidious than the one he replaced. It's time for Mbeki to step up and directly confront him.


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