Foreign Policy Blogs

Mbeki Moderates

Thabo Mbeki is worried that eleven months is not enough time to provide a climate for Zimbabwe to hold free and fair elections. SADC appointed Mbeki to serve as mediator between Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF, which put the old tyrant up as the party's candidate to serve another term in office, and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and other opposition organizations.

I have no doubt that Mbeki will serve in this capacity conscientiously and possibly even well. But the entire conceit is flawed from the outset. By asking Mbeki to mediate SADC has, unintentionally or not, given Mugabe moral equivalence with the opposition and has given Mugabe its imprimatur. Furthermore, without the capacity to force Mugabe's hand, it is rather unclear how observers can ensure elections that are either free or fair.

The 2008 elections may not necessarily be characterized by ruthlessness or violence, though almost assuredly there will be some of both in the run-up to the polls. But Mugabe has created a climate where most of the corruption and fear is already instilled in the population. It is difficult to envision a scenario in which the opposition or outside observers will be able to level a playing field already titlted against fairness. This is one of the many reasons why the equanimity of “mediation” is flawed from the outset. Mugabe has already cooked the books, as it were. An even-handed approach thus favors the home team, and there is no greater political home-field advantage than that Mugabe's ZANU-PF has rigged for itself. 

If Mbeki wants cover to promote change in Zimbabwe, the United States appears set to provide it: The US has made it clear that it is behind the Zimbabwean opposition even though thus far Washington has been unwilling to use the term “regime change.” SADC and Mbeki face the perfect storm for forcing the hand of Mugabe. Mbeki continues to pursue the cautious route, to defer to an old ally against white supremacy and colonialism long after that alliance has been shorn of either relevance or utility.