Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Breaking news, courtesy of Southern Cross
One of the advantages of being in Oxford are the amazing speakers that constantly pass through. Last night, Andrew and I, as well as what appeared to be most of Oxford's South African community, were fortunate to see Trevor Manuel, the Minister of Finance, talk on "Making Globalisation Work for Africa."

I think that Manuel impressed all present as thoughtful, articulate, intelligent and as in complete command of his subject. I'm not going to dwell on the economic issues, which comprised the bulk of the talk, because that's more Andrew's area than mine. But I would like to pick up on some interesting comments (breaking news!) that Manuel made in response to an issue that was inevitably raised - Zimbabwe.

When asked whether South Africa should take a harder line on Zimbabwe, Manuel claimed that South Africa has been facilitating talks between the MDC and Zanu-PF, and the parties are talking, and making progress. For some reason, however, both sides prefer to deny this in public. This echoes, of course, similar claims that Mbeki has made in recent months, most notably when Gerhard Schroder was in town.

In Manuel's view, such an approach, whereby South Africa encourages and facilitates negotiation, is preferable to a more interventionist strategy, which wouldn't, in his view, be conducive to a strong democracy in Zimbabwe in the long-term. The familiar mantra - that this is a problem for Zimbabweans to solve - was repeated. Manuel also stated that the fundamental problem in Zimbabwe is that the country is split 50/50 between the MDC and Zanu-PF and can't get past this. This, he said, has been borne out by the two previous elections, which produced roughly similar results.

All of this left me with a series of nagging questions. If Zanu-PF and the MDC are talking, then why don't they admit it? But, then again, why should Manuel and Mbeki lie? So let's just hope that the parties are talking and that sooner or later they will admit it and make some real progress. More fundamentally, I was concerned about Manuel's reading of the crisis in Zimbabwe. Referring to Zimbabwean election results strikes me as an odd way to gauge public opinion in that country, given the blatant intimidation and rigging that have characterised both parliamentary and presidential elections. Rather than a 50/50 split producing tension and conflict, the situation seems to me to be far simpler, and far more worrying - the ruling party has lost support, is employing whatever means it can to stay in power, and in the process is undermining the rule of law, democracy and human rights. In short, in the absence of a credible election result, Mugabe can no longer claim to be a democratically elected or legitimate head of state, and Zanu-PF is not a legitimate government. What disturbed me was that there was no hint of this in Manuel's response.

I agree with Manuel that "regime change" would be an impractical, inappropriate and rather fanciful approach to Zimbabwe. But I do think that, given the circumstances - rigged elections, torture, enforced starvation, intimidation of the judiciary etc - South Africa could do far more to note its concern and disapproval of developments in its northern neighbour. At the very least, at a rhetorical level, South Africa should draw a clear line between acceptable and unacceptable forms of governance. Perhaps too, if South Africa has initiated negotiations, it should be more open and outspoken about this fact, rather than making apparently inconsistent claims when pressed on the issue. Not only would this enhance South Africa's international standing, but it would do wonders for initiatives such as Nepad and the peer-review mechanism, the credibility of which must have been badly damaged by African states' apparent denial of just how bad things are in Zimbabwe.

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