African renaissance depends on rule of law and human rights

Mbeki should condemn Mugabe's attack on the free press, denounce the use of torture and call for respect for the rule of law.

IN THE MID-1980s Zimbabwe was widely regarded as a success story of racial tolerance and reconciliation.The Mugabe government drew plaudits for its well-educated cabinet and for its generous spending on education and health. Many whites who had fled the advent of majority rule clamoured to come back. Yet, for those who cared to notice, the worm was already in the apple. The ruthless way that Mugabe put Matabeleland to the sword was too easily brushed under the carpet as a regrettable but typically African way of settling accounts. The fact that the man to whom the Matabele looked, Joshua Nkomo, then consecrated the new status quo by becoming vice-president seemed to vindicate this view of events.

But the Mugabe government had shown that it was willing to kill and torture en masse as an act of state policy and that Nkomo had merely embraced the “get rich” ethic that more and more typified the governing elite while leaving in the lurch those he was supposed to represent. The enlightened spending on health and education was not accompanied by any effort to promote private investment, which not only doomed Zimbabweans to ever-growing unemployment but ultimately undermined the regime’s social achievements.

The significance of events in Zimbabwe is not confined to that country. It is an event of capital importance to the Southern African Development Community that Mugabe has justified the detention and torture of journalists, has told the Supreme Court judges who attempted to defend the rule of law that they should resign, has accused an entire community (the whites) of “plotting unrest”, and is now taking powers to silence the independent press whose criticisms he sees as the work of “British agents” and international fascists”. Zimbabwe is not a minor or backward state and it has a strong liberal tradition that was never wholly silenced even by Ian Smith’s draconian clamp down; it comes as a shock to hear the accents of Idi Amin in such a context. Many countries, including Britain, the European Union, America and Australia have publicly and strongly protested — but no single peep of disapproval has been heard from the South African government or any SADC state. Yet when these states meet there are few things they seem to enjoy more than making declarations about human rights. Is this as hypocritical and meaningless as it would appear? A good test would be to see if the next SADC meeting requests Mugabe to sign the UN Convention against Torture, something he has thus far steadfastly refused to do.

Zimbabwe became independent in 1981. The larger question is whether it describes the future of the other formerly white ruled states, Namibia (independent 1991) and South Africa (liberated 1994). There are signs that it might. Nujoma’s determination to amend the constitution and soldier on as president has a Mugabe-like ring, as does the gathering corruption within the Windhoek government and its readiness to play the race card. To a lesser though still quite discernible extent the same is true of South Africa. It has had praise heaped upon it, but here too there is a worrying tolerance of corruption, a willingness to play the race card and to pass restrictive labour laws as if attracting foreign investment did not matter.

Deputy President Thabo Mbeki is much taken with the idea of an African renaissance. It is something we all want to see — but whether we do or not depends directly on whether the governments in Windhoek and Pretoria learn from Harare’s dreadful example. This is not so much a moral question as a sociological one. Behind Mugabe stands an African elite, long deprived and now determined to enrich itself at any cost to the rule of law, the social infrastructure or the public they are supposed to represent. This group has been the nation’s ruin. The same forces are mustered in strength behind Nujoma and Mbeki. Will these leaders give in to them or assert a genuine patriotism that goes beyond the satisfaction of the selfish needs (aka empowerment) of this clamant group?

If, even at this late stage, Nujoma decides, like Mandela, to step down with dignity it would send the right message: that respect for the constitution is more important than self-interest. If Mbeki is the man we hope he is, he will condemn Mugabe’s attack on the free press, will denounce the use of torture and make it clear that an African renaissance depends on a rigorous respect for the rule of law and for human dignity irrespective of race. Such a declaration would show that our (and SADC’s) preaching about a “human rights culture” is more than just empty words; it would hasten the end of Mugabe’s regime and serve notice that South Africa, at least, is determined to learn from African experience.