Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Robert Mugabe - credible partner for quiet diplomacy?

South African and global media carried some horrible headlines in relation to Zimbabwe over the last 24-hours. Rumours that the Zimbabwean opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, and other leaders in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has not only been detained during a protest meeting but also assaulted and tortured was bad enough. The brute reality of a headline that appeared earlier this morning, "Tsvangirai 'has cracked skull, in ICU'", is nauseating.

Zimbabwe is one of South Africa's neighbours to the north, but it could barely feel farther removed from our everyday reality. To be sure, we have some very serious challenges on our side of the 'fence'. However, democracy is firmly entrenched. Amongst other things we're a constitutional state where the constitution -as protected and interpreted by the Constitutional Court- is the highest authority in the land. While the government's often visible irritation with the news media is somewhat worrying, freedom of speech and the free flow of information is constitutionally guaranteed. We can struggle with real problems within the framework of a democracy.

In contrast it has long seemed that Zimbabwe is a democracy only in name. It goes through the motions of democratic processes, elections and the like - but in the final analysis it has a 'president for life' and supporting institutions. The latter includes the police and army. All the ingredients of a basket case dictatorial state. When the official opposition's leader is detained AND beaten for engaging in political protest -not criminal activities- one has to shake your head in disbelief.

I have limited sympathy for the South African Government's stance on 'the Zimbabwe problem'. Yes, I agree, we can't invade the country and topple the ruling Zanu-PF by military means. For such kind of action even more gruesome transgressions need to be committed or be imminent, let's pray it doesn't come to that, and international sanction needs to be obtained through a (relatively) credible organ such as the UN. Even then the chances of lasting success, barring a real groundswell in support among the broader Zimbabwean population, is remote. Iraq is a case in point, regardless of the demographic differences (societal/economic/religious).

If you can't go the military route, which should always be the absolute last option -to be avoided at all cost-, the only option left is resorting to various diplomatic strategies. Logic dictates that diplomacy that relies on incentives and support rather than threats should in the long term lead to the most sustainable results. Ridiculing the target of your diplomatic efforts can at best only lead to limited concessions, grudgingly conceded. If you can somehow manage to have the illusion of 'working with' the other party and actually achieve results, all should be well.

All of the above make sense and could be used in support of the South African Government's preference for 'quiet' (read non-offending) diplomacy. Also keep in mind that South Africa's ruling ANC was supported by Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF during the former (then) liberation movement's long and arduous struggle against Apartheid and quiet diplomacy makes all the more sense.

But what if, after years of quiet diplomacy and various broken promises, you do not achieve meaningful results? What if, in your effort not to offend or ridicule your target for diplomacy, you end up being ridiculed as your well meant efforts are repeatedly nullified by new power abuses in Zimbabwe? What if your international credibility starts suffering from your negotiating partner's flabbergasting actions? What if the leader of the official opposition of that country is beaten up by Zimbabwean Police to the point of suffering a cracked skull? What if your negotiating partner, Robert Mugabe, is an 83-year old despot who seems incapable of changing his ways?

Sure, military action is still not an option. How about much harsher public rebukes? How about non-military options, e.g. freezing bank accounts, demanding time lines for reforms, sanctions against members of the oppressive government, material support for the opposition?

Moving to all of these immediately will off-course be foolish. Shutting the door on Zimbabwe won't help anyone. But perhaps a public rebuke and an insinuation that action may follow on words is at the order of the day? I think such a rebuke could be delivered by our ambassador on the front steps of the relevant hospital, after a 'courtesy' visit to Tsvangirai. If there is any Zimbabwe police around, I'm sure there will be, he may want to wear a helmet - just in case...

In my opinion, the South African Government needs to seriously consider whether its departure point for dealing with Robert Mugabe is based on respect for an admired (now corrupted) former freedom fighter or on respect for human rights and democracy. If it is the former, then perpetual quiet diplomacy, 'staying the course', is indeed the best approach. If its the latter, then it is clearly time to confront the old man more decisively...

No comments: