Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, likes to make the point that the world is obsessed with Zimbabwe because white farmers have been victims there. Mbeki’s argument is that there are many other African countries where black people are oppressed that are not even a blip on the screen of CNN or the BBC. Mbeki is wrong, of course. The worst victims of Robert Mugabe’s kleptocracy have been black folk, the poor people without British or South African passports whose only choice is to live, impossibly, with 165,000 percent inflation or to become illegal migrants in South Africa, and who have now been defrauded of the one thing that gave them dignity: their democratic rights.
Mbeki is wrong, too, about why Zimbabwe attracts the world’s attention. Certainly, dispossessed white farmers play well, particularly in the right-wing British media. But global interest spotlights Zimbabwe for reasons not dissimilar to those that drew thousands to the antiapartheid movement in the 1980s: it has become the symbol of a larger struggle, this time between an old African way of doing things and a new one.
Mbeki himself called for an “African Renaissance” early in his tenure. Well, one was happening just across the border, where a vibrant new coalition of civil society, working across old ethnic boundaries, coalesced in 1999 into an opposition that formed the first real challenge to Mugabe’s effective one-party state and heralded something of a post-neocolonial era in Africa. It had happened already in other countries–specifically, Kenya and Zambia–but there was a spirit to the Zimbabwean opposition that seemed particularly rejuvenating.
In the March 29 elections, if preliminary results posted at polling stations are anything to go by, a slender majority of Zimbabweans were willing to vote against Mugabe. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) under Morgan Tsvangirai won a clear plurality of the vote, although as we go to press it’s unclear whether this was an outright majority or there would need to be a second round. (There was a third candidate: Simba Makoni, one of Mugabe’s former finance ministers, who ran as an independent.)
What has been happening ever since–the ruling ZANU-PF’s refusal to release results and the “recounting” of certain marginal constituencies–is indeed a silent coup, as the MDC alleges. It is the ruling elite’s refusal to obey the will of the people and a ploy to allow the ruling party’s thugs to intimidate voters away from the MDC if there is a second round. That there is not–yet–carnage on the Kenyan scale (the MDC alleges ten deaths) is testament to the pan-ethnic sophistication of the Zimbabwean opposition. But the intimidation has begun: Human Rights Watch has documented a dramatic increase in torture and violence by the ruling party.
The perplexing thing to outsiders is how susceptible Zimbabweans have been to this kind of intimidation. Their courage during the Chimurenga, as the decade-long war of independence against the white-minority Rhodesian regime is known, is legendary: they were far more willing to go to war than were their neighbors in South Africa. And yet when the unions called a national strike to protest the delay in announcing election results, it was a flop: Mugabe’s security apparatus managed to hector nearly everyone back to work. The ZANU-PF government has proven far more adept at intimidation than Rhodesia’s white supremacist ruler ever was.
The truth is that a significant minority–more than 40 percent, it seems–voted for Mugabe. It is important for students of African democracy to grapple with this. Do Zimbabweans have some kind of suicidal millenarian impulse? Are atavistic loyalties stronger than reason? Or is it simply that old-fashioned two-step–brainwashing and intimidation–at play? Whichever, Mugabe is not universally reviled. His power is rooted in significant popular support.
That, plus the fact that he and his generals will not voluntarily give up power, means there is really only one solution to the crisis: a negotiated settlement. Of course, this is unjust to the valiant victors of the March poll, just as the Lancaster House agreement in 1979 was unfair to the brave soldiers of the Chimurenga. But the balance of forces dictates that there is now, as then, no other way out.
Tsvangirai has acknowledged this; in a recent statement he called for a “government of national unity.” Even though everyone still seems to be fighting over who won the election, the battleground has shifted, almost imperceptibly: now it’s about who will play the leading role in some kind of negotiated settlement. Tsvangirai believes that as the victor, he has the right to convene such a settlement. Mugabe works off a different logic: that possession is nine-tenths of the law. What is going on behind the scenes is not only an attempt by Mugabe to seize power but attempts by mediators, including Mbeki, to get both sides to agree to a settlement. Mbeki’s preference is for Makoni, whose candidacy he has been tacitly supporting. Although Makoni won no more than 10 percent of the vote, he might win in the horse-trading as a transitional leader acceptable to both sides.
Mbeki and his South African team of mediators seemed for a while to be making headway; they brokered the deal that allowed the election to happen in the first place. But now Mbeki has discredited himself beyond repair by identifying too closely with Mugabe. And the regional Southern African Development Community is too divided to act with singular purpose: Mugabe has very powerful friends, particularly in the even more rotten Angolan regime. The United Nations has, to date, left the matter to the SADC, but Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who was lobbied recently by Tsvangirai at a conference in Ghana, is showing signs of impatience. Surely he would not like his copybook to be blotted, as his predecessor’s was by the UN’s failures regarding Rwanda, although it is unclear what Ban can do. Sanctions and embargoes seem only to make Mugabe more defiant.
Ultimately, people and not governments or intergovernmental agencies will uproot African tyranny. On April 17 there was a salutary sign of the civil-society power that originally spawned the MDC: the refusal by South African dockworkers to unload a ship full of arms headed for the Zimbabwe Defense Force and the high court interdict obtained by South African clerics to prevent the ship from docking. The ship defied the interdict, which required it to stay in the port until inspection, and fled. Shamefully, the South African authorities did nothing about it.
Meanwhile, as the designated, if discredited, mediator, Mbeki has one unforgettable lesson to teach Zimbabwe from South Africa’s experience: a real settlement can be reached only when each side accepts, incontrovertibly, that it cannot win. Tragically, none of the players in the Zimbabwean conflict–least of all Mugabe–has come to this realization.