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Decision Time in Zimbabwe


Change is in the air in Zimbabwe. Its citizens no longer talk about whether it will come, but rather when. All acknowledge, however, that the road will be dangerous, possibly violent. South Africa is the single country with ability to help its neighbour through the roughest patches if it is willing to engage with sufficient determination to persuade the government of President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party to sit down with their challenger, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and then facilitate and mediate negotiations for a transitional government and new elections. A range of other international players need to play supporting roles, including the EU, the Southern Africa Development Commission (SADC), the African Union (AU), and the Commonwealth, but most directly and prominently the U.S. The visit of President Bush to South Africa on 8 July is a unique opportunity to chart action that could lead to a negotiated solution and an end to the crisis.

Zimbabwe’s internal situation has continued to worsen, producing increasingly destabilising effects in southern Africa through refugees and economic chaos and damaging the entire continent’s efforts to establish new political and trade relations with the rest of the world through the NEPAD initiative. Inside the country everyone is suffering – the opposition and its supporters from political repression and the collapse of the economy, but even ZANU-PF leaders whose opportunities to plunder a steadily deteriorating state are disappearing – and everyone wants change.

Brutal state-sponsored violence is no longer sufficient to produce compliance by the civilian population. Instead, civil disobedience is increasing. Successful mass action in the form of stay-aways from work orchestrated by the trade unions, civil society groups, and the MDC in March, April and June further undermined the regime’s legitimacy and resuscitated the opposition.

In an article published in The New York Times in advance of the Bush visit, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said of President Mugabe and his regime, “their time has come and gone”, and that new leadership respectful of human rights and the rule of law was needed. South Africa is working to resolve the Zimbabwe crisis since it is experiencing many of its consequences but Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad, whose efforts, like those of President Mbeki, have been mostly low key and behind the scenes, said cooly, “I hope we can reach a common approach on Zimbabwe. If there is another route, the Americans must put it on the table”.

There is indeed another route. Getting ZANU-PF and the MDC to the table for unconditional negotiations should be at the top of the agenda when the U.S. and South African Presidents meet.

What is needed is a clear blueprint that spells out and builds consensus around:

  • the end objective: a legitimate, internationally and domestically supported government in Harare that is determined by the will of the Zimbabwean people in a free and fair election;
  • the facilitation: South Africa must be the primary foreign actor that sits down with the two sides, helps them find the necessary compromises and applies its considerable influence to get them to accept those compromises, but the supportive roles of others in the wider international community, including most directly and prominently the U.S., are essential and need to be well planned and executed;
  • the participants: ZANU-PF and the MDC, with significant input from other elements of Zimbabwean civil society to widen the process and build stakeholder support; and
  • the process: direct negotiations starting as soon as possible, using an agenda focused on the establishment of the rule of law, the interim administration, and the timetable for elections.

A process of negotiations is the only way out of a stalemate that otherwise promises to become increasingly violent and deadly but it will not be easy. President Mugabe’s strategy may well be to goad the MDC into violent protest so that he can crush it much as he did an earlier competing party, ZAPU, which he forced into a deceptively named government of national unity during the 1980s and destroyed following the massacres in Matabeleland. South Africa and Nigeria already attempted to facilitate negotiations in 2002, after the fraudulent Mugabe re-election. The new effort can benefit from the wider awareness on both sides that the status quo is untenable but it will also require a tougher, more consequential approach from both South Africa and others in the international community.

If that is forthcoming, there are indications that President Mugabe may be prepared to step aside provided he gets adequate assurances of personal safety and respect. Over the past few months, he has dropped several hints that he has finished the job of decolonisation in Zimbabwe and is thus ready to retire. Factionalism in ZANU-PF is intensifying in anticipation of a possible succession plan.

Nairobi/Brussels, 8 July 2003


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