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 home  programs  africa  southern africa  zimbabwe
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Zimbabwe's Election: The Stakes for Southern Africa

Since the intensification of Zimbabwe’s political, economic and humanitarian crisis following defeat of a government-sponsored constitution in a national referendum nearly two years ago, the International Crisis Group (ICG) has documented the escalation of state-sponsored violence and erosion of the rule of law. ICG has called for robust action by the international community, especially Zimbabwe’s neighbours and partners in the regional Southern African Development Community (SADC). As the March presidential election draws nearer, and state violence, intimidation and rigging intensify, action by South Africa and its SADC partners becomes more urgent. Zimbabwe’s neighbours have a major opportunity to respond more forcefully to the growing crisis at a Summit in Malawi on 13-14 January 2002 and its aftermath. This briefing paper updates the regional dimensions of the crisis, and analyses SADC’s policy options, with a special emphasis on its most powerful member, South Africa.

Nelson Mandela came to the presidency in South Africa proclaiming, “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign policy”. His successor, Thabo Mbeki, called for an African Renaissance and an end to the dictatorships that have disfigured the continent’s political landscape. Their principles have been severely tested in the context of the regional response to the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. The quiet diplomacy pursued by South Africa and SADC for the past eighteen months has failed to influence President Mugabe’s government while the region has been tarred with an image of violence, instability and abandonment of the rule of law.

The economic and political turmoil in South Africa’s northern neighbour threatens the credibility of the embryonic New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), an agenda for renewal crafted by Mbeki, Nigeria’s President Obasanjo, Algeria’s President Bouteflika, and Senegal’s President Wade, among others as a vehicle for a new relationship between Africa and the world. While NEPAD seeks to promote Africa’s full integration into the world economy, the Zimbabwe crisis is further marginalising the continent, producing a decline in investment, confidence in local currencies, and tourism. The regional southern African economy is threatened further by an influx of refugees from Zimbabwe.

President Mugabe’s policies contradict still tentative trends elsewhere in southern Africa toward political and economic liberalisation. Though not without major difficulty and controversy, there is slow and painful movement toward democracy in the region. South Africa’s post-apartheid democratic transformation – including President Mandela’s voluntary retirement in 1999 – has been a beacon for societies struggling for freedom around the world. Zambia’s President Chiluba allowed elections to proceed without him in late December 2001 after a decade in office. Presidents dos Santos of Angola, Nujoma of Namibia, Muluzi of Malawi, and Chissano of Mozambique have all indicated that they will respect constitutional limits and not stand for re-election.

In contrast, Zimbabwe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF, is answering the charge that it is not upholding the rule of law by creating new, more partisan laws to which it will adhere. One Zimbabwean legal expert told ICG: “These laws represent a fundamental assault on the rule of law. In South Africa, apartheid was supported by an edifice of laws that contravened basic rights. In Zimbabwe, there are no longer checks and balances now that the Supreme Court is making decisions based on support for the government rather than on whether the laws are constitutional”.

The regime is also emasculating the pillars of independent opposition: media, civil society organisations, student groups, labour and any other constituency from which ZANU-PF might conceivably face a challenge. No critical public meeting, statement or action can occur without facing at least harassment. Under pending government-proposed legislation, labour will not be allowed to strike or demonstrate. Universities are expelling students identified as activists. ZANU-PF has analysed the civil society tactics used elsewhere in pro-democracy struggles and is systematically outlawing all of them. Moreover, the government’s measures appear to have a reach beyond the spring 2002 elections. They indicate a ruling party mentality that is digging in for a marathon, not trying simply to win a short sprint.
Beyond Zimbabwe’s borders, the dominant trend in southern Africa is toward greater respect for constitutions and the rule of law. Institutions – governmental and non-governmental – that can strengthen democracy are gaining maturity throughout the region. Though the parties that assumed power at independence remain dominant, the growth of civil society and opposition parties ensures greater respect for democratic processes and norms. Economic reform efforts have become central to most southern African governments. Beyond any policy difference, however, argues a South African academic, “the so-called ‘Zimbabwe Crisis’ is essentially the failure of a kleptocratic elite to respond constructively to a generalised economic crisis. It is, in other words, a reflection of the atrophy within the ruling ZANU-PF”. NEPAD commits African leaders to self-police their continent to maintain good governance and responsible economic policies but Zimbabwe is the high profile exception that could undermine the initiative’s credibility in its infancy.

SADC is the international body with the most potential direct influence over its troubled member, on whose difficulties its mid-January 2002 summit in Malawi will focus. SADC policy is at a crossroads. Either member states can continue sending mixed signals to Mugabe veering from strong public criticism to solidarity, or they can set minimum conditions for the spring election based on SADC’s own standards and use their leverage to enforce them. The decision could make the difference three months from now between a reforming Zimbabwe and a chaotic one. This will not necessarily be the region’s last chance to avert disaster but it could be its best.

Harare/Brussels, 11 January 2002


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