South Africa’s unseemly alliance

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James Kirchick is an assistant editor of the New Republic.

The tendency to compare contemporary political events to the Third Reich is called reducto ad Hitlerum, so facile are the alleged similarities and so often is this tactic employed. With that caveat, when I saw a photograph Friday of smiling, garland-laden South African President Thabo Mbeki holding the hand of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, I couldn’t resist drawing a mental parallel: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 waving his copy of the Munich treaty before a crowd of thousands, boasting that he had achieved “peace for our time.”

That Mbeki, who last month insisted there was “no crisis” in Zimbabwe, continues to glad-hand Mugabe represents a complete abandonment of moral responsibility. As he provides diplomatic cover, Mugabe’s armed thugs roam Zimbabwe’s countryside threatening, torturing and killing people believed to have voted for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The MDC claims 25 of its supporters have been murdered and 40,000 people have been displaced since the March 29 parliamentary and presidential election. The regime has detained journalists and trade union leaders as well as members of the country’s electoral commission, the body that verifies election results.

The regime claims that MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, while besting Mugabe, did not poll more than the 50% required for an outright win and has mandated a runoff. Given that the alternative would be an automatic Mugabe victory, Tsvangirai has decided to take part. Yet conditions for a free and fair election clearly do not exist in Zimbabwe. In an interview with the New York Times last week, a member of Mugabe’s Politburo implicitly promised war: “We’re giving the people of Zimbabwe another opportunity to mend their ways, to vote properly. This is their last chance.”


And yet, as the world looks to South Africa for political leadership (as it is the region’s economic powerhouse), Mbeki stands idly by. In fact, his methods of dealing with the tyrant to his north -- supplying cut-rate electric power, issuing nary a word of criticism, siding with Russia and China to prevent the dispatch of a U.N. envoy to report on postelection violence -- has exacerbated the political and humanitarian crisis.

Why has Mbeki acted this way?

National liberation movements rule the roost in much of southern Africa: Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa are all governed by political parties that emerged from armed revolutionary movements, and their leaders tend to close ranks when one is threatened. The leaders of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress fear a domino effect, in which the fall of a sister liberation movement could portend a similar fate for its own political fortunes. “If Zimbabwe ‘falls,’ South Africa will be the next target,” South African historian R.W. Johnson wrote recently in the London Review of Books.

Zimbabwean writer Blessing-Miles Tendi, writing in the Guardian, offered another explanation for South Africa’s inertia: Mbeki owes Mugabe a political debt. Mugabe could have seized Zimbabwe’s white-owned farms in the 1990s but resisted, in part because of pressure from the ANC, then trying to convince South Africa’s whites that they would not lose their land in a post-apartheid dispensation.

On a plane ride from Johannesburg to Harare in 2006, I sat across the aisle from a South African military officer on a mission to train Zimbabwean troops. Appalling as it may seem, post-apartheid South Africa maintains a firm military relationship with the Mugabe regime. They formed a joint commission on military strategy and intelligence in 2005, for instance. Both are also members of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, regional alliances that discourage unwanted meddling and encourage mutual sustainment. The AU even amended its constitution in 2003 to permit forceful intervention in any AU country to rectify “serious threat[s] to legitimate order.” This was widely seen -- correctly -- as a form of regime preservation.

The March 29 election gave a reticent Mbeki every opportunity he needed to gently urge a peaceful transition of power in Zimbabwe. But his aversion to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change -- which the ANC’s top brass views as a “neocolonialist” threat partly because of the support it has from the West -- led him to quietly support the breakaway candidacy of Mugabe’s former finance minister, Simba Makoni, as a “third way” option to keep the MDC boxed out.

Another complicating factor is that Mbeki faces internal opposition from South African labor, which opposes his free-market economic reforms and is allied with its anti-Mugabe Zimbabwean trade union brethren. Victory for the opposition in Zimbabwe would embolden Mbeki’s domestic antagonists.


Mugabe has easily manipulated Mbeki, a strange set of affairs considering that the former figure is a discredited dictator running a morally bankrupt kleptocracy, and the latter presides over a country brimming with international goodwill and a strong economy. It is not in South Africa’s national interest, nor -- despite what he may think -- in Mbeki’s personal political interest that Mugabe’s disastrous rule continue. No political leader wants a failed state on his border, and Zimbabwe’s collapse is deeply felt in South Africa, where more than 3 million Zimbabweans have fled in recent years, crowding into a country with 40% unemployment.

As discredited as his role as mediator may be, Mbeki can still act for good. At the very least, he could demand an end to the regime’s unceasing violence against its own people. He could threaten to cut off fuel and electric supplies. He could publicly demand Mugabe step aside. If that’s too antagonistic, he could pressure Mugabe to allow journalists and election observers from free countries (i.e., not just teams from China, Iran and Venezuela, nations that Mugabe welcomed in March) to monitor the runoff.

But by refusing to perform even the easiest of these tasks, Mbeki has exposed himself as an utterly feckless leader. The tragedy of Zimbabwe falls considerably on his head.