Saturday, October 18, 2003

What explains South Africa's policy of quiet diplomacy towards its imploding neighbour Zimbabwe? I've heard many theories - that South Africa is attempting to maintain stability in the region, that the ANC cannot bear to criticise a fellow veteran of the liberation struggle, and that Mbeki has no faith in the MDC as an alternative government. Truth be told, no one knows. All that we can do is speculate. And this suggests that, at the very least, the ANC has failed in one of the most fundamental duties of democratic government, which is to justify policy to the electorate. The proliferation of theories about Mbeki's true motives reflects poorly, to say the least, upon his ability to communicate policy to the very people whom he leads.

This week, a further speculative - and particularly interesting - interpretation of South Africa's stance was suggested by a fellow South African, Ntsiki Dinga, in an e-mail debate. Ntsiki's view is that South Africa is rapidly emerging as a continental hegemon, comparable to America in the rest of the world. Other African states resent this and feel threatened. If South Africa is to maintain its leading role in organisations such as Nepad and the African Union, then Mbeki cannot afford to alienate other African leaders. But he would if he played 'Big Brother' by attempting 'regime change' in Zimbabwe. Ultimately, if South Africa is to pursue its progressive agenda for Africa, it cannot afford to marginalise itself by acting unilaterally.

How convincing is Ntsiki's argument? Let's start by putting things in perspective. Zimbabwe is a country in which - as we speak - Africans are being tortured, food aid is being distributed along party lines so that many are starving, rape is being used as a tool of political oppression, the independence of the judiciary is being compromised, and freedom of speech destroyed. And so the list goes on. We don't need reminding of these facts. Dispossession of white farms is but one aspect of a broader pattern.

It goes without saying that these are appalling human rights abuses. Now, South African has one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world. Furthermore, Nepad - Africa's great hope at the moment - is founded squarely upon adherence to democratic principles. These values are fundamental; they should never be compromised, and supposedly, in terms of our Constitution, represent the 'deepest aspirations' of the South African people.

In light of this, South Africa's complete silence on Zimbabwe's human rights record is astonishing. Note, I said silence. In her e-mail, Ntsiki writes that other African leaders would be alarmed 'if SA charged into Zimbabwe and dethroned Bob.' I agree; that is unrealistic. But this overstates the alternatives to 'regime change' that are available. Is it too much to ask for, at the very least, an indication from the South African government that there are certain lines that no civilised nation should cross, and which Zimbabwe has? I refuse to accept that simply stating that South Africa condemns, say, torture, or closure of independent newspapers, would alienate South Africa to such an extent that its role in Nepad and the AU would be undermined.

Furthermore, the South African stance fosters the impression that the ANC is, fundamentally, not that committed to human rights and democracy. No other nation in Africa has declined as spectacularly, and with such publicity, as Zimbabwe in recent years. Ntsiki's argument is premised on the view that South Africa is attempting to pursue a progressive agenda for Africa as a whole. But how much credibility will organisations such as Nepad have when its members refuse to offer even token condemnation of transgressions of the principles that they purport to uphold? How can Mbeki 'sell' Nepad to the West as long as he remains silent about the situation unfolding over his border?

For these reasons, Ntiski's argument fails, I think, as a defence of ANC policy. But it also fails as an explanation. South Africa has gone beyond simply adopting a 'hands off' approach towards the Mugabe regime - which would be consistent with Ntsiki's view. Instead, the South African government is actively propping Mugabe up. Its no secret that South Africa is assisting Zimbabwe with food aid (distributed only to Mugabe's ZANU-PF cronies while others starve) and fuel needs. Furthermore, our foreign minister has stated that the ANC will 'never' condemn the Mugabe government. Never? No matter what? Such commitment bespeaks far more than a cautious pragmatism; it suggests that the ANC regards its relationship with Mugabe, the individual, as all important, despite the human suffering for which he's accountable.

That the ANC is willing to privilege a friendship over the most fundamental principles of civilised government does not bode well. It's something about which all of us - white and black - should be concerned.


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