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Mbeki Steps Up

South Africa finally shifts to deal with Mugabe as inflation skyrockets.

10:00 AM, Aug 22, 2005 • By ROGER BATE
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SOUTH AFRICAN PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI has finally conceded that his "quiet diplomacy" with Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, has failed, and that more aggressive negotiations are required. Although he has yet to make a public announcement to this effect, he has made such statements in private and the signs from South Africa now suggest that Mbeki will for the first time seriously consider breaking the taboo and taking Mugabe to task for the destruction of his own country. If he has the courage to do so he will likely be followed by other African leaders who know that investment in the region is being hampered by Mugabe--the only remaining post-colonial liberation leader.

Action is urgently required for the people of Zimbabwe. Its currency plunged to a record low against the dollar at last week's foreign currency auction. The Zimbabwe dollar dived 23 percent to 24,025.31 to the U.S. dollar, driving the black market rate to near 45,000. An IMF team arrives today in Harare for talks with Mugabe ahead of a September 9 meeting to discuss the embattled country's arrears and its future in the institution. The IMF, which delayed a decision on Zimbabwe's future over arrears of $295 million, has repeatedly urged the government to take measures to let the market determine exchange rates.

Financial collapse, including currency-crumbling rampant inflation of over 250 percent, is the most obvious international manifestation of the crisis in Zimbabwe. But with an Amnesty International film of the recent house bulldozing police operation appearing on TV screens across the globe last weekend, outcry amongst political activists is increasing. This exposure has led to one immediate, if small, change in the ongoing campaign against opposition housing: In the Epworth suburb of the capital Harare, black crosses painted on the walls of houses mark the buildings that are still awaiting demolition. While earlier actions were conducted with little or no prior notice, the painting of black crosses indicates that some of the houses have been given a temporary reprieve thanks to a court ruling that the demolitions did not follow the proper procedures. But without more international pressure the reprieve will not be permanent. Which is where Mbeki comes in.

THE SOUTH AFRICAN LEADER has sacrificed much of his international reputation by declining to criticize President Mugabe's excesses. Instead, South Africa has tried to influence Zimbabwe's regime with behind-the-scenes talks. Yet Zimbabwe's descent into economic collapse and political repression has continued unabated, leaving Mbeki's strategy in tatters. "Our President has eventually agreed that the quiet diplomatic approach has not yielded the results that were expected," said Devikarani Jana, South Africa's new ambassador to Ireland. Jana received a briefing on Zimbabwe from South African officials last Wednesday, and then briefed the press afterwards in Pretoria, South Africa. Jana added that she was personally "not happy" with the behavior of Zimbabwe's regime, as there were "serious allegations of human rights violations".

These signs that Mbeki is allowing his team to publicly change policy towards Zimbabwe come at a critical time. Mugabe has spurned the latest diplomatic efforts made by African leaders to resolve Zimbabwe's crisis. The African Union, the alliance of all 53 countries on the continent, sent a mediator to Zimbabwe to broker talks between Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. It chose Joaquin Chissano, the former president of Mozambique, who is well-liked in the region, for the mission. But Mugabe refused to meet him and called on those who "should know better" to stop asking him to meet his opponents. Prior to the abortive mission, the African Union described Zimbabwe's crisis as an "internal matter" and when the group met, its leaders ensured that Zimbabwe did not figure on the agenda. But Jana's remarks indicate that South Africa would no longer object if the African Union voiced public criticism of Mugabe's regime.

Jana told journalists that it was "unreasonable" of Western governments to expect South Africa to "go it alone" when dealing with Zimbabwe, saying that the African Union held prime responsibility. "South Africa cannot act as a single country, as it belongs to the A.U., and it's up to the A.U. to take a stand against Zimbabwe," she said, adding, "I speak for myself when I say I would like the A.U. to take stronger measures on that."

Her personal thoughts, so obviously endorsed by Mbeki, come at a time when South Africa has greater bargaining power over Zimbabwe than ever before. Unable to agree a substantial deal with China and too poor to buy food or fuel, Mugabe has been forced to turn to his powerful neighbor for a rescue package. Mbeki, leading the African Union and backed by the IMF, just might be able to bring Mugabe to the negotiating table.

Roger Bate is a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.