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South Africa is Going Soft on Zimbabwe

What keeps South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki from intervening in Zimbabwe to prevent another African crisis?

February 20, 2004

What keeps South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki from intervening in Zimbabwe to prevent another African crisis?

More than a decade ago, Professor Ali Mazrui — the distinguished Kenyan intellectual — recommended what he called "the internal re-colonization of Africa."

By that term, he meant that the strongest country in each of the continent's four regions — Egypt in the north, South Africa in the south, Nigeria in the west and Kenya or Ethiopia in the east — should assume responsibility for establishing order, democratic rule and economic improvement in its region.

It was an unfortunate choice of words, which the professor came to regret. Later at a seminar in Johannesburg, he also noted wryly that some of the presumed doctors who were featured in his proposal were themselves "patients."

He referred to Sani Abacha's military dictatorship in Nigeria at the time, as well as corruption and misrule in Kenya and war in Ethiopia.

The widely held view is that all of these issues factor into the New Partnership for African Development's (NEPAD) credibility test — and so far South Africa's President Mbeki has failed to pass that test.

Grand designs aside, what is widely perceived to be at the core of the region's troubles is the way in which South Africa's leaders deal with neighboring Zimbabwe — and its despotic president, Robert Mugabe.

What inhibits Mbeki in his dealings with Mugabe? In his defense, it must be said that South Africa suffers from a number of restraining factors in the role it must play on the continent.

Regional superpower though it may be, South Africa has limited resources in the face of massive domestic demands. It also suffers in the regional context from the same mixture of envy and resentment that the United States encounters globally.

This is aggravated by the fact that South Africa is the new boy on the block — the last African country to be liberated from white minority rule.

It also holds many IOUs from poorer states in its region that suffered greatly in its liberation struggle and it would therefore be resented if it were to start throwing its weight around.

For all these reasons, South Africa must move delicately. And no one is more sensitive — indeed over-sensitive — to this than Mbeki.

His entire political life was spent as a supplicant, pleading the African National Congress' (ANC) cause of African liberation from apartheid.

He begged support, accepted refuge from whoever was willing to offer it, often at great cost to his hosts. And never, ever, did he jeopardize any of this by meddling in their domestic affairs — and certainly not by criticizing them publicly.

It became a way of life, a political culture. And it is deeply embedded today in the psyche of the ANC exiles — if not in the minds of the internals and ex-prisoners, such as Nelson Mandela, who can and often do speak out much more sharply about the behavior of Africa's delinquent leaders.

It must be said, too, that there are no easy options for bringing Zimbabwe's Mugabe to heel.

Theoretically, South Africa could close its borders with landlocked Zimbabwe. But that would precipitate a national catastrophe among a population already under distress.

It could cut off the electricity that it supplies from its Eskom power grid, or simply slow down all cross-border traffic. But that would inflict hardship on the ordinary Zimbabweans, while having little effect on the well-heeled ruling elite who care little for the plight of their people.

In a lengthy interview I had with Mbeki, it became clear that the main thing influencing him on Zimbabwe is a conviction that the intense concern with the issue reflects a racist perspective on the part of white South Africans particularly — and the white developed world generally.

As he sees it, the white world is indifferent to the suffering and death of millions of black people all over Africa — but becomes agitated when a handful of whites are harassed in Zimbabwe.

''The reason Zimbabwe is such a preoccupation in the United Kingdom and the United States and Sweden and everywhere," Mbeki said, "is because white people died, and white people were deprived of their property."

When I suggested that Zimbabwe was likely to be seen by the developed world as a test for the credibility of NEPAD's commitment to good governance, the president showed a rare flash of anger.

"Why is the question not asked: 'What about the Ivory Coast and NEPAD?''' he demanded.

"You've had negotiations in Sudan, which broke down and have now resumed — after two million people have died. Why doesn't anybody say: 'What about Sudan and NEPAD?' No, all they say is Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe.

''I'm not saying the things that are going on in Zimbabwe are right," Mbeki went on. "But I am saying the extraordinary preoccupation with what is going on in Zimbabwe in reality has got to do with white fears in South Africa.

"What they are afraid of is: 'Here are these black people across the border doing these terrible things to white people.'

"What assurance do we have that they won't do the same thing to white people here? That's the issue. And that's all. A million people die in Rwanda and do the white South Africans care? Not a bit.

"You talk to them about the disaster in Angola, to which the apartheid regime contributed, and they're not interested. Let's talk about Zimbabwe.

"Does anyone want to talk about the big disaster in Mozambique, from which it is now recovering? No. Let's talk about Zimbabwe. You say to them, Look at what is happening in the Congo. No, no, no, let's talk about Zimbabwe. Why? It's because 12 white people died!"

No doubt, there is much truth in Mbeki's charge that many whites are shamefully indifferent to the plight of black people in Africa's many trouble spots.

And it is also true that they are worried that what is happening to the white Zimbabweans might one day happen to them here. But it is not the whole truth.

The fact is, what is happening in Zimbabwe is a major African tragedy in the making. Hundreds of thousands of black people are going to die there over the next few years — perhaps more than died in the Rwanda genocide.

They will die because of Mugabe's willful destruction of the agricultural economy — and the combination of starvation and AIDS this is going to cause.

Adapted from “Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa” by Allister Sparks. Copyright © 2003 by Allister Sparks. Used by permission of the publisher, Profile Books; ISBN: 186 197 337 3. Order “Beyond the Miracle” for £14.99 at