The Magazine

South Africa Plays Ball with Dictators

So don't play ball in South Africa.

May 12, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 33 • By JAMES KIRCHICK and MARIAN L. TUPY
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Friends of Zimbabwe have long hoped for a peaceful transfer of power in that country. But in spite of losing the March 29 elections to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the regime of Robert Mugabe is clinging to power. Once again, the world's democracies look to Zimbabwe's southern neighbor to stem the growing violence against the Zimbabwean people unleashed by the ruling regime.

South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, however, maintains that there is "no crisis" in Zimbabwe. He has even ordered his U.N. representative to block debate about the situation in the Security Council, which South Africa currently chairs.

Indeed, far from facilitating peaceful change in Zimbabwe, South Africa's government has been complicit in violating the human rights and the democratically expressed will of Zimbabweans--which is why opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has called on Mbeki to relinquish his role as the Southern African Development Community's designated mediator of the Zimbabwean crisis.

South Africa's and Zimbabwe's histories are closely intertwined. In the 1830s, Zulu tribesmen trekked north and settled in Zimbabwe's Matabeleland. Then it was settlers from the Cape who subdued the Matabeles and founded the Rhodesian colony. To this day, landlocked Zimbabwe relies on South African ports and, more important, energy supplies--such as electricity, which South Africa provides to Zimbabwe at a 36 percent discount. It is no stretch to say that South Africa could force regime change in Zimbabwe overnight.

Indeed, there is a precedent for this, back when South Africa was ruled by a white minority government and Zimbabwe was Rhodesia. In the late 1970s, reading the writing on the wall, apartheid prime minister B.J. Vorster cut off military and economic aid to Rhodesia's leader, Ian Smith, and told him to accept some form of majority rule. Without the backing of apartheid South Africa, a white-ruled Rhodesia couldn't stand, and a power-sharing agreement between blacks and whites soon followed in what became Zimbabwe.

Today the situation is no different. Without the support of South Africa, the continent's economic powerhouse, Mugabe could not hold onto power.

Therein lies the problem. South Africa has not only tolerated Mugabe, it has been complicit in keeping him in office. For years, Mbeki has enjoyed Western support as he pursues his vaunted "quiet diplomacy" in Zimbabwe. In those same years, Zimbabweans by the million have suffered from growing political repression and economic deterioration. Hundreds of thousands have died from the combined effects of HIV/AIDS and malnutrition.

Mbeki claims that a negotiated settlement is necessary to prevent Zimbabwe from collapsing, but collapse is closer today than in 2003, when President Bush called Mbeki his "point man" on Zimbabwe. Since then, a quarter of the Zimbabwean population has fled the country, inflation has risen to 150,000 percent, and unemployment has reached 80 percent. Longevity, in the mid-30s, is among the lowest in the world.

Election observers sent by the South African government endorsed Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections in 2000 and 2005 and the last presidential election, in 2002. Observers from free nations judged all three polls deeply flawed. A week after the presidential and parliamentary elections, Mbeki personally flew to Harare. There he held Mugabe's hand as they strolled down the tarmac and laughed as the Zimbabwean dictator insulted the British prime minister in front of the assembled press.

Two weeks ago, the South African government approved the transit to Zimbabwe of Chinese arms, including 3 million rounds of ammunition, from the port of Durban. No one doubts that the weapons were intended to aid the Zimbabwean military in quelling internal dissent. South African trade unions refused to unload the deadly cargo, and the Chinese vessel sailed away.

South Africa's policy toward Zimbabwe reflects a growing gap between the high-minded principles it claims to follow in foreign affairs and the sordid reality of its real-world machinations. Pretoria cozies up to Cuba, Iran, and Libya. At the U.N., it worked with China to prevent debate on human rights abuses in Burma. The country's intelligence minister recently visited Iran, where he praised Hezbollah and Hamas. In sum, Pretoria has yet to encounter an anti-Western tyrant it doesn't like.

Perhaps it is time for the West to respond. During apartheid, when South Africa denied the vast majority of its citizens their basic human rights, South Africa was banned from most international athletic competition. Today, as athletes and politicians around the world weigh the pros and cons of attending the Beijing Olympics, they should also reconsider their attendance at the World Cup to be hosted by South Africa in 2010.