Foreign Policy Blogs

As Elephants Bathe Zimbabwe Burns

Thabo Mbeki, whom leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) appointed to act as mediator between Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) when it held its summit in Tanzania last week, appears remarkably sanguine about the crisis in Zimbabwe, all in all. In a recent interview Mbeki, when asked if he believed it likely that Robert Mugabe would peacefully renounce power at some point, responded, “I think so. Yes, sure. You see, President Mugabe and the leadership of [the ruling] Zanu-PF believe they are running a democratic country. That's why you have an elected opposition, that's why it's possible for the opposition to run municipal government [in Harare and Bulawayo].”

One would think that Mbeki had been asked a routine question about local governance in Tshwane and that in Zimbabwe politics as usual has not involved forced removals, oppression of opposition leaders, widespread violence, and the world's worst inflation rate. But Mugabe and his allies believe they are running a democratic country, see, and who is Mbeki to challenge that? Apparently Mbeki believes that the old tyrant means well, and really, isn't that the most important thing?

Perhaps this is yet another example of the policy of “quiet diplomacy” that has thus far nonetheless involved more quiet and less diplomacy. Perhaps Mbeki has a strategem that involves carrots, not sticks, honey, not vinegar. But I cannot help but think that Mugabe rests easily when he sees this sort of verbiage flowing from Mbeki's Pretoria home Mahlambandlopfu, which means “when the elephants bathe.” The elephants bathe. Zimbabwe burns. And somehow Mugabe emerges clean.