Let's turn off Mugabe's lights

The best way to bring Zimbabwe's regime to its knees is for South Africa to cut its electricity supp

The scenes of violent state repression to emerge from Zimbabwe during the week of all-out strikes were tragically reminiscent of another time and place. Machine-gun- toting armoured personnel carriers careered menacingly through black townships. Police and soldiers fired tear gas and beat peaceful protesters with rifle butts, clubs and whips.

We have seen such images many times before - in neighbouring South Africa during the apartheid era. The brutality may be similar, but that is where the comparison ends. In Zimbabwe, it is a black minority that is terrorising the black majority. The tyranny is not racial; it's political.

But it is still tyranny - and on a monumental scale. Last year, 1,060 supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were tortured, 227 kidnapped and beaten, 111 unlawfully detained and 58 murdered. Nearly all the victims were black. Human rights groups such as the Amani Trust, which used to monitor and publicise these abuses, have folded because of state-sanctioned harassment and intimidation.

Terror is only half the problem. After years of government mismanagement and corruption, the Zimbabwean economy is in free fall. Inflation has hit 269 per cent (a loaf of bread costing $Z5 in 1998 now costs $Z350, and petrol prices rocketed by 283 per cent two months ago). Three-quarters of the workforce are unemployed. Six million people are on the verge of starvation. A third of the adult population is HIV-positive. Life expec- tancy has plunged to less than 43 years. Little wonder that two million Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa and other neighbouring countries.

The response of Britain and the rest of the international community has been feeble and ineffectual. Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth did nothing to weaken President Robert Mugabe's dictatorship. The EU travel ban is lifted whenever the regime's top officials apply to attend diplomatic conferences, even though they often make only fleeting appearances, and spend the rest of their time in Europe's top cities shopping and wining and dining.

World leaders who rant against Mugabe's barbarisms, including Tony Blair and George Bush, refuse to enforce international human rights laws against him. Under the UN Convention Against Torture, they could issue arrest warrants and extradition orders to put Mugabe on trial - as they did with Slobodan Milosevic. But the US and UK governments plead that, as a serving head of state, he has immunity from prosecution. What is the point of having international human rights laws if the chief abusers cannot be prosecuted?

But all is not lost. There is still one sanction that could force Mugabe to the negotiating table within weeks: cutting off the electricity supply from South Africa.

A new campaign - Switch Off Mugabe's Power - is being launched this month. It has the backing of some opposition activists inside Zimbabwe, and of Zimbabwean exiles and refugees in Britain and South Africa. Concerned Zimbabweans Abroad, a refugee group based in Johannesburg, is planning a series of protests outside the headquarters of Eskom, South Africa's main electricity supply company, and in front of the parliament buildings in Pretoria. The group will urge the South African government to halt its supply of electricity to Zimbabwe if Mugabe refuses to agree to free and fair elections.

In the late 1970s, when South Africa threatened to switch off Rhodesia's power, it forced Ian Smith's white minority government to agree to negotiate black majority rule. The mere threat to cut the electricity supply worked then. Perhaps it can work now.

The Zimbabwean electricity authority, Zesa, buys 15 per cent of its power from South Africa's Eskom. This is nearly half its imported electricity (most of the rest comes from Mozambique). Without this power, the Zimbabwean economy would collapse. Regular power cuts already cause havoc in the economy.

Many factories are operating at only half their capacity, according to Anthony Mandiwanza, president of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries. He predicts a loss of $US1.4bn in export earnings, based on current power shortages.

The Mugabe regime owes South Africa at least $US16m for power imports, and this debt is rising rapidly as Zimbabwe defaults on payments.

Campaigners say the curtailment of electricity from South Africa would cause further disruption but would not jeopardise water supplies, medical care and other essential services. In any case, they hope the mere threat by South Africa to cut off the power would be sufficient either to force Mugabe to the negotiating table or to prompt a coup against him.

During the apartheid era, the African National Congress urged the international community to exert economic pressure on the governments of P W Botha and F W De Klerk. The demise of the apartheid regime was aided by international economic sanctions. Campaigners argue that President Thabo Mbeki's government should use its economic leverage to support the struggle for democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe, in the same way that other countries helped pressure the apartheid-era South African government to dismantle white supremacism.

They acknowledge that it would be unfair to expect South Africa to bear the financial burden of cutting off the power to the Mugabe regime. Hence their call for the EU and US to cover any financial losses suffered by South Africa.

South Africa should set Mugabe a deadline to agree to free and fair elections, says J J Sibanda, president of Concerned Zimbabweans Abroad. He believes the mere threat to pull the plug on electricity supplies could precipitate a coup by military officers or government ministers, many of whom are privately appalled to see their country destroyed by Mugabe's megalomania.

There is just one problem. President Mbeki has gone out of his way to thwart international action against Zimbabwe and the Mugabe regime, arguing against external pressure to promote democracy and human rights.

Ironically, when he was a leader of the ANC's liberation struggle two decades ago, Mbeki argued the exact opposite. He said the world had a moral duty to impose economic sanctions to undermine the apartheid government. Why is there a moral duty to challenge a white tyranny, but not a black one? Are black Zimbabweans' lives less worthy of saving than the lives of their South African counterparts?

Whatever Mbeki says now, he may come under public pressure within South Africa to change his hands-off policy. Already, liberation heroes such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and leaders of the South African trade union federation, Cosatu, have spoken out against human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

Even if South Africa refuses to turn off the lights on Mugabe's regime, all is not lost. Perhaps Mozambique will show greater moral leadership.

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