When President Robert Mugabe’s brutal thugs, in police uniforms, thrashed opposition and civic group leaders a few weeks ago, little did they realise they were actually striking blows for freedom from the old tyrant’s rule. Gruesome pictures of the battered leaders flashed around the world on the internet and were widely used in newspapers and on television.
International condemnation, muted over the past ten years by South Africa’s monstrous protection of Mugabe, grew to a crescendo. The violence, perpetrated against defenceless citizens, brought Mugabe’s brutality against his own people to wide public attention.
Although all foreign correspondents had been barred from the country and though the efforts of local journalists were severely hampered, the word – and the pictures – got out, galvanising anti-Mugabe feelings even in Africa, where leaders have been reluctant to condemn him because of his liberation credentials.
Mugabe – once the world’s blue-eyed African, lauded for his eloquence and statesmanship – has finally been recognised as a dangerous megalomaniac. In the words of the president of the African Union, President John Kufuor of Ghana: “We are embarrassed by what is going on in Zimbabwe.”
For the past eight years or so, South Africa has conned the world into believing that it has been working behind the scenes to solve the problems in Zimbabwe. But President Thabo Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” is now derisively referred to as “pussyfoot diplomacy”. The early response from that government to atrocities that all could clearly see was a vague statement from the deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad about obeying rule of law.
However, other voices within South Africa have been vociferous in their condemnation of Mugabe – notably the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, Tony Leon, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Cardinal Wilfred Napier, the powerful trade-union body Cosatu, and a number of student groups.
Inside Zimbabwe, the beatings have been a significant catalyst. People cowed by years of intimidation and weighed down by economic hardship are now angry. Anger has conquered fear. Within Zanu-PF itself, the two groups shadow-boxing for pole position to succeed Mugabe, led by Joyce Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa, have come into the open, courting media attention.
Both the Mujuru and Mnangagwa factions agree Mugabe should not continue beyond the presidential elections scheduled for 2008, but not because they have suddenly seen the light and want a democratic Zimbabwe. They are motivated by self-interest: the EU’s travel restrictions are irksome and the economic meltdown is destroying their business empires.
The two factions hate each other, yet neither is strong enough on its own to win a general election. Both know they will need the support of the opposition MDC, because of its local support base and because it holds the key to international recognition and donor-funded reconstruction of the economy.
Mugabe, meanwhile, wants to continue in power. He is a wily politician and we should not underestimate his machinations.
Despite his failed diplomacy, what Mbeki does will be important. His political and economic muscle will determine the ultimate outcome. Tragically for most Zimbabweans, three million of whom live in squalor and fear in South Africa, Mbeki wants to see Zanu-PF continue to rule Zimbabwe – albeit a reformed Zanu-PF.
He is working on it. The recent meetings in Johannesburg between the two countries’ vice-presidents is evidence of that. There will be a role for the MDC in a new Zimbabwe, but it is clear Mbeki will exert his considerable influence to avoid an MDC-dominated government on his northern border. He mistrusts the party and fears its trade-union influence.
Wilf Mbanga was founder of Zimbabwe’s Daily News, which was closed down by the government in 2003