Fatal blow to proud ANC tradition

Alex | Sep 30, 2009
The ANC besmirches its record as a mediator.

Until recently, the ANC had a proud record as a mediator, especially in Africa. One thinks of its efforts to broker a peaceful settlement in the Democratic Republic of Congo; of its interventions in Burundi, Mozambique and Lesotho; of Mandela’s role in brokering a deal between Libya, Britain and the US. But the government seems to have forgotten recently that scrupulous neutrality is a fundamental condition for successful mediation. Its efforts to act as an honest broker in Zimbabwe have failed because it has lost the confidence of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which sees president Mbeki as an ally of president Mugabe. The two men are frequently seen together, and Mbeki has refused to condemn human rights violations in Zimbabwe. Moreover, several cabinet ministers have visited Zimbabwe recently and issued statements downplaying the gravity of the situation. Thoko Didiza said she believes the outlook for agriculture is promising and acknowledged only that the Zimbabwean government had made ‘a few administration errors’. In a letter to Australian prime minister John Howard, Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo pressed for the lifting of sanctions and the re-admission of Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth. The letter represented Mugabe as a reasonable man whose land resettlement programme has benefited 274 000 black farmers. Since Obasanjo and Mbeki met shortly before, it is clear that Mbeki shares this view. South Africa’s reputation as an honest broker has been severely damaged by its defence of an oppressive regime.

The ANC-led government has - or, more accurately, had until fairly recently - a proud history as a mediator of conflict, particularly in Africa.

Its record as a mediator includes its persevering attempt to broker a peaceful settlement in the Democratic Republic of Congo. To South Africa's mammoth and enduring conciliatory role in the DRC further kindred initiatives must be added. They include its interventions in Burundi, Mozambique and Lesotho, where South Africa, acting in concert with Botswana, forestalled an attempted coup against the elected government before nudging the adversaries into a constitutional settlement and new elections.

Then, too, there is the role of Mandela in brokering a deal between Libya, Britain and the United States - under which the two Libyan nationals suspected of planting a bomb on the Pan-American passenger plane that crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 were tried in The Hague under Scottish law.

But more recently the government seems to have forgotten that a fundamental condition for successful mediation is the need to be scrupulously neutral and, as important, to be perceived as neutral by the major parties in a conflict situation. South Africa's efforts to act as an honest broker in Zimbabwe - where incipient civil war threatens, according to the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference - have come to naught. The reason is quite simple. It has lost the confidence of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which sees president Thabo Mbeki as an ally of president Robert Mugabe's.

The time-line from Zimbabwe's highly controversial presidential election in March 2002 to Mbeki's decision to allow Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth to lapse is not a testimony to South Africa's impartiality. It is littered with manifestations of support for Mugabe and Zanu-PF in preference to Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC.

Leaving aside Mbeki's refusal to condemn human rights violations in Zimbabwe, there are photographs and television frames of Mbeki holding hands with Mugabe and embracing Mugabe's former security minister Emmerson Mnangawa.

Several of Mbeki's cabinet ministers have made trips to Zimbabwe in recent months, only to issue statements on their return that sanitised the Mugabe regime's human rights violations, rationalised its seizure of farms and downplayed the disruption to the lives of farmers and their workers. They included foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, labour minister Membathisi Mdladlana and, more worrying, Agriculture and Land Affairs minister Thoko Didiza. On the basis of a two-day visit and talks with her Zimbabwean counterpart, Didiza thinks - in contrast to the World Food Programme - the outlook for agricultural production is promising. Like Dlamini-Zuma, she opts for euphemisms. She acknowledges that the Zimbabwe government has made "a few administration errors".

To cap it all there is the letter of Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo to Australia's prime minister, John Howard, pressing for the lifting of sanctions against Zimbabwe and the readmission of Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth. Since Obasanjo met Mbeki for discussions on Zimbabwe shortly prior to writing the letter, it is safe to conclude that all the issues were cleared with Mbeki before it was dispatched. In any case Obasanjo says in the letter that Mbeki shares his view that there is no need for a meeting of the Commonwealth troika, consisting of himself, Mbeki, and Howard, to consider whether to prolong Zimbabwe's suspension. Stripped of circumlocution that means that he wanted the suspension to be allowed to lapse.

Mugabe's spin doctors might have written the letter. It is consistently supportive of his government. Obasanjo cites figures to show the fast-track land resettlement programme has benefited 220 000 "peasant communal farmers" and 54 000 "indigenous commercial farmers" and presents Mugabe as a reasonable man who will "provide land to anyone who wishes to continue farming". It represents an eloquent expression of the sentiments evinced by Dlamini-Zuma, Mdladlana and Didiza.

There is a heavy price to pay for South Africa, however. Its reputation as an honest broker has been severely damaged, perhaps even irreparably. To many it has become the defender of an oppressive regime.