Since 1994, average life expectancy in the beleaguered nation has plummeted from 57 years to 34 years for women, and from 54 years to 37 years for men — the shortest lifespans in the world.
And small wonder. Some 3,500 people die every week from the combined effects of HIV/AIDS, poverty and malnutrition. State‐sponsored killings and torture of the opposition activists are common as well. More people die in Zimbabwe every week than in Afghanistan, Darfur or Iraq.
Clearly, African leaders — most notably South African President Thabo Mbeki — have failed the people of Zimbabwe. Yet, as the crisis worsens, there is hope that a new regional leadership will address Africa’s forgotten tragedy more forcefully. The United States, too, must reconsider its past policy toward Zimbabwe and seize this new opportunity.
None can fault past U.S. policy, which has featured tough rhetoric and sustained effort to coax the world to act by embracing targeted sanctions. But it’s time to change course.
Change in Zimbabwe has always required a healthy dose of reality. There has never been a time like the present to call for a tightening of the noose on the Mugabe regime. The time is now ripe for one simple reason: President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa is heading for the door.
For years, the U.S. State Department has found it way too convenient to “support without reservation” Mr. Mbeki’s leadership in resolving the crisis in Zimbabwe. With Mr. Mbeki’s departure, State should now admit his “quiet diplomacy” was an unmitigated failure.
Mr. Mbeki’s inaction and cavalier attitude to the suffering of the Zimbabwean people has done grave harm to the idea of an “African Renaissance.” One can’t help but wonder if he ever actually intended to do anything to end the cruelties of Robert Mugabe’s reign in Harare.
There is good reason to hope Mr. Mbeki’s replacement, the newly elected African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma, understands the calamity that is unfolding to his north and is willing to take the steps necessary to wake the region from the nightmare that Zimbabwe has become.
For one thing, Mr. Zuma’s election would have been impossible without the support of South Africa’s powerful trade unions that have close and friendly ties with Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Meanwhile, Washington can do more too. Admittedly, direct U.S. national interest in Zimbabwe is limited, but we can do more to relieve one of the world’s greatest humanitarian disasters than simply voice hollow rhetoric.