Monday, December 08, 2003

The Commonwealth has very little power and almost no relevance in the 21st century, but what little clout it does still possess probably rests on its ability to function as a champion of the down trodden and oppressed. It is thus exceedingly good news that the organisation has decided to stand firm on the issue of Zimbabwe. Yielding to South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia's demands that Zimbabwe be re-admitted would have undermined what little credibility it has left.

But perhaps it is time to go further still and to turn the Commonwealth into a club for democratic nations only. As I say, if the organisation is to survive, it will have to be on the basis of the values it espouses rather than any economic or political clout that it wields. That being the case, it would be as well to re-think the basis upon which one is eligible to become a member of the Commonwealth and to thus try and enhance its moral authority. The fact that South Africa et al came so close to hijacking the organisation in pursuit of their own peculiar and quixotic agendas is depressing and, furthermore, it should serve as a warning to those members of the Commonwealth (the majority?) that are committed to the promotion of good governance and democracy etc. It is now time to act to ensure that what nearly came to pass this week-end does not come to pass in the future. A smaller Commonwealth, acting to promote and enhance open and democratic governance amongst its members could only be a good thing. The present set-up which gives a stage to dictators and lunatics to indulge in international grand-standing ought not to be tolerated any longer. The specter of democratic nations fighting it out over Zimbabwe was both distasteful and served nobodies purposes. If the rules for membership of the Commonwealth were clear (a commitment to democracy and respect for human rights) then it could have been avoided. There's no reason why Thabo Mbeki shouldn't cosy up to Mugabe, but he should not have been allowed to do it at the Commonwealth.

Changing the subject slightly, one of the things that I found interesting about the week-ends happenings was the fact that many African and Caribbean nations (the so-called Black Commonwealth) came out against Mugabe. The fact that Kenya and Ghana, both nations that have made the transition to democracy (even if it is imperfect in both cases), supported moves to maintain the suspension should expose the utter bankruptcy of South Africa's position. The South African government risks losing whatever moral authority it still possesses by supporting Mugabe so openly. Nobody expects Mbeki to enact a policy of 'regime change' or even to impose economic sanctions (although they might be useful) against Zimbabwe, but a clearly articulated stance of opposition to what Mugabe has been doing could only have enhanced his standing. As we've seen, even some African nations have come to the conclusion that unflagging support of dictators is not in the long term interests of Africa, which is why it so depressing that SA has chosen the policy that it has. Many of us had hoped that South Africa would emerge as a country committed to opposing dictators and oppression and to supporting the spread of democracy. Not only has it dashed these hopes, but it appears to be doing so at a time when other African countries are realising the folly of such a position. South Africa has chosen not to break the mould, but in maintaining the status quo it appears to be swimming against the flow of history.


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