Mugabe’s Best Friend

April 10, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared on Forbes​.com on April 10, 2008.

Close to two weeks after the ballots were cast in Zimbabwe’s pivotal elections, two points appear to be clear. First, the opposition won. Second, the Mugabe regime has no intention of relinquishing power.

Blatant disregard for democracy that flies in the face of numerous pan‐​African and regional conventions would, in an ideal world, spur African leaders into action. They are, alas, silent and so free nations are once again forced to turn to South Africa, the regional superpower, urging it to do “something.” Unfortunately, South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki has not only tolerated the Zimbabwean regime. He has actively helped Mugabe to maintain his grip on power.

Speaking in London over the weekend, Mbeki said, “I must say that we have been very pleased with the manner in which the elections have gone. For the first time, the opposition parties had access to everywhere in the country, including the urban areas.”

Of course, implicit in the admission that the victorious opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was allowed to campaign throughout the country “for the first time,” is Mbeki’s acknowledgment that the MDC was not allowed to campaign freely on previous occasions. That begs a question: If the MDC was not allowed to campaign freely previously, why did Mbeki’s election observers proclaim previous elections in Zimbabwe as free and fair?

In the past, Mbeki was criticized for not doing enough with regard to the deteriorating economic and political situation in Zimbabwe. That puzzled those who feared the negative consequences of Zimbabwe’s collapse on the regional economy in general and South African economy in particular. Mbeki claimed that his “quiet diplomacy” would prevent Zimbabwe from descending into chaos. Today, chaos in Zimbabwe is, if anything, more likely. But Mbeki has not only tolerated Mugabe’s dictatorship. He has actively promoted it.

For example, Mbeki has attempted to legitimize the Zimbabwean regime internationally. It was on Mbeki’s watch, after all, that the Mugabe regime stole the 2000 and 2005 parliamentary poll and the 2002 presidential poll. In all three cases, the Zimbabwean government’s handling of the elections was excoriated by the international community — except the Southern African Development Community dominated by South Africa. Similarly, Mbeki’s envoy to the U.N. Security Council sidelined a debate on Mugabe’s human rights abuses.

Moreover, far from pulling the proverbial plug on Mugabe, South Africa continues to sell electricity to Zimbabwe at a price that is 36% lower than the price that the state‐​run ESKOM charges South African consumers. In fact, according to South African press reports, South Africa increased its electricity supplies to Zimbabwe earlier this year — just as South Africa was being plunged into darkness by economically devastating power shortages.

When, in 2003, President George W. Bush chose Mbeki as his “point‐​man” on Zimbabwe, he could not have chosen a worse individual for the job. As Mark Gevisser, author of Thabo Mbeki’s biography The Dream Deferred, notes, “Because of the history of their relationship … [Mugabe is] not just a father but a father whom he [Mbeki] sees some allegiance to … Mbeki is unable to bring enough pressure to bear on Mugabe to force him to some sort of resolution. The opposition [MDC] doesn’t have any trust in him and the [Zimbabwean] government doesn’t fear him enough to listen to his hard words.”

As his presidency enters its last year, it is useful to contrast Mbeki’s performance with that of his predecessor. After 27 years in jail, Mandela emerged as a man of forgiveness and compassion, and set about to forge a nation in which his former jailors had an important role to play. Mbeki never overcame his past and never grew in his post. His views remain that of a Soviet‐​schooled Marxist ideologue who sees the world in black and white.

That world is split into the oppressor and the oppressed — the West and the rest. Obsessed with race and colonialism, Mbeki ignored the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa at the cost of millions of lives of his countrymen. To him, orthodox science “portrayed black people … [as] victims of a slave mentality.” Rejection of the HIV/AIDS orthodoxy was necessary in order to confront “centuries‐​old white racist beliefs and concepts about Africans.”

Similarly, Mbeki refused to confront Mugabe as long as the latter man skillfully couched his devastating economic policies in terms of his fight against British plots and other delusions.

Zimbabwe’s future hangs in the balance. Few people dare to predict the outcome of this latest crisis and few doubt that the potential for violence is very high. If a peaceful transfer of power somehow comes about, it will not be because of South Africa’s Mbeki, but in spite of him.

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