Foreign Policy Blogs

Zim: Whither Mbeki?

One of the major reasons why this blog, putatively devoted to South Africa, has so emphasized Zimbabwe thus far is that beyond the obvious significance of Zim right now, the country also represents South Africa's biggest foreign policy challenge. It is too facile to assert that South Africa is doing nothing as so many obeservers have in recent years. But it is also true that Thabo Mbeki's quiet diplomacy has been both too quiet and too diplomatic.

One wonders if the news  out of Zimbabwe in recent days will push Mbeki into a more aggressive stand. Mugabe's most vocal opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, who leads one of two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was arrested along with other individuals after a rally this past weekend. It appears clear that Tsvangirai has been tortured or at least brutally beaten, and although a court order has been issued demanding that Tsvangirai and the others be given urgent medical treatment and access to lawyers, so far Mugabe's police have defied the court.  (For more coverage see here — be sure to check out the links at the end of the article as well.)

Mbeki's lack of obvious action with regard to events across the Limpopo is in its way understandable and yet ultimately feckless. It is understandable because Mugabe still stands as something of a liberation hero in the region and he provided tremendous aid to the South African struggle against apartheid in the 1980s. But at a certain point loyalty can be misplaced. Mbeki's fecklessness in avoiding confrontation with the ANC's old ally has the appearance of wilfull blindness in which Mbeki overlooks the very sorts of atrocities against Africans that the anti-colonial struggles fought so hard to overcome.

If for no reason other than self interest one would think that Mbeki would take a harder line against Mugabe. Presumably South Africa will want to be able to have some role in helping to rebuild a New Zimbabwe when it finally emerges. But by coddling, or at least appearing not to want to challenge Mugabe publicly, South Africa is abdicating its role, its opportunity, as a regional power. It is also sacrificing its credibility among masses of Zimbabweans.

“Silent diplomacy” has failed, however sensible and even noble the discrete approach must have seemed to those in the position to shape its contours. It is time for the ANC, with Thabo Mbeki in the lead, to say “no more” and to show that it means business in doing so. South Africa is the most powerful nation in the region. Given the fact that the EU and UN have condemned the latest behavior of Mugabe's henchmen and that the rest of the world largely seems to be following suit, Mbeki has both the means and the opportunity to act and in so doing to prove South Africa's status across the continent. The only question that remains, then, is whether he has the will to do so.