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Zimbabwe as South Africa, Circa 1990 (Part II)

How can Zimbabwe embrace dialogue to resolve its seemingly intractable human rights crisis?

April 3, 2007

How can Zimbabwe embrace dialogue to resolve its seemingly intractable human rights crisis?

There may be various motivations behind the latest spate of violence, which coincided with a special summit to discuss the Zimbabwean crisis called by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in late March.

Ironically enough, SADC was originally formed by Zimbabwe and other neighboring states in solidarity against South Africa's apartheid regime. President Robert Mugabe has become increasingly isolated in recent months, both in Zimbabwe and in the region.

Within his own party, ZANU-PF, his attempts to prolong his incumbency have met with sufficient resistance that he has been forced to backtrack on plans to postpone presidential elections until 2010. At least three potential successors are currently jockeying for influence and position within the ruling party. Balanced against them is the party's confirmation on March 30 that Mugabe will be its candidate in next year's presidential election.

This gives some indication of the continuing support that Mugabe commands, particularly within ZANU-PF's powerful women's and youth sectors, who venerate him as the liberation leader. Mugabe's Machiavelli-like record of maneuvering himself out of corners may manifest in capitalizing on this support to silence his critics.

Regionally, outrage at human rights abuses has prompted condemnation from Zambian President Mwanawasa and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And for the first time, the African Union has expressed concerns regarding peoples' rights.

Was Mugabe symbolically thumbing his nose at his peers in the Southern African Development Community by authorizing further violence — even while he attended the summit at which he was to be called to account for the situation in Zimbabwe? Or was this a move by one faction within the ruling ZANU-PF party to test its support among the security and intelligence services while the president was away?

There have been intimations that Mugabe will provoke more violence and use the ongoing chaos to justify declaring a state of emergency in order to impose his will on recalcitrant party members — and simultaneously rout his foes in both the opposition and government through the use of force.

Mugabe's sustained defiance in the face of widespread criticism and calls for constitutional change, evoke shades of Botha's infamous "Crossing the Rubicon" speech in 1985. Despite internal and external calls for the repeal of repressive laws and the release of political prisoners, Botha remained intransigent and imposed a state of emergency on South Africa.

But what both Botha then and Mugabe now failed to grasp is that, in passing this point of no return, they follow a portentous historical precedent. When Caesar crossed the tiny Rubicon River, it symbolized his deliberate violation of the Roman Constitution. This move plunged the region into a prolonged and bloody civil war with innumerable casualties and untold civilian suffering.

South Africa was ultimately saved from a similar fate due to the realization by rational thinkers across the political spectrum that dialogue and negotiation was their only alternative. Perhaps it is with this in mind that SADC has mandated South African President Thabo Mbeki to facilitate dialogue between Zimbabwe's ruling party and the opposition — and it is to be hoped that he will interpret this mandate more broadly.

For Zimbabwe, a first step could be the identification of those players from all sectors of politics and civil society whose primary concern is the future well-being of the country and her people.

Regional facilitation of constructive dialogue between such actors from across the spectrum — including labor, business, women and the media — would go a long way to averting Caesar-style outcomes. Negotiation of a transitional period during which repressive laws can be repealed and the electoral playing field leveled could haul Zimbabwe back from the brink of a meltdown.

But to get there, the rulers of neighboring states need to shake off ingrained suspicions. Their distrust of organized labor and broad-based social groups emanates in part from the disconcerting realization that corrupt and elitist governments have been toppled by similar movements, as evidenced by the examples of Kenya and Zambia.

Their resistance to media criticism is rooted in beliefs that independent media organizations serve the interests of former colonizers, a perception that the media themselves need to alter by engaging in constructive criticism — rather than criticism as an end in itself. It would be a refreshing change to see governments in the region engaging proactively with media, unions and other groups, both in Zimbabwe and in their home territories.

If they fail to do so, the spillover of Zimbabwean refugees and migrants into neighboring countries will continue to affect their domestic economic and socio-political environments. They run the risk that the ulcer that is Zimbabwe today may metastasize to other sites in the region.