Mbeki cannot do more in Zimbabwe

OPINION – The former South African president cannot fix Zimbabwe's thoroughly broken political system. Zimbabwe once again attracted remarkable international attention in 2008, this time over highly controversial elections and protracted negotiations between Zimbabwe's main political actors aimed at finding a resolution to the country's political crisis.

A Thabo Mbeki brokered power-sharing deal between Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and the two MDC factions, led by Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara respectively, was finally reached on September 15 2008. Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders celebrated. The international community’s response was lukewarm. The likes of Mbeki felt vindicated after years of bearing criticism for his "quiet diplomacy". Others, such as hardliners in Zanu-PF and Zimbabwe’s security establishment, were disgruntled.

For many Zimbabweans inside the country, the deal was a ray of hope because life had become a punishing drudgery. A life of enduring the merciless African sun while queuing for food and a worthless national currency. The wretchedness is compounded by the breakdown of service delivery, skyrocketing inflation, the breakdown of the rule of law, the politicisation of the police, military, civil service and judiciary, and the violence meted out by the state on citizens it ought to protect.

In the midst of evident collapse and misery one would have thought that the power-sharing deal will be implemented with alacrity by the three political parties. But Zimbabwe is a difficult country politically. It has a penchant for throwing up the unexpected and many of its current problems have robust historical roots that will not be easily uprooted. It is little surprise that a deadlock has developed between the political parties over the formation of a cabinet to run the country. Zanu-PF is bent on retaining powerful ministerial posts such as state security, defence, home affairs and finance. In spite of the MDC’s majority in parliament and Tsvangirai amassing the most votes in the first presidential election round, Zanu-PF still views the MDC as a subordinate party.

The Tsvangirai MDC has called on former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, to continue with his mediation efforts in order to break the deadlock. On the other hand Zanu-PF insists that Mbeki’s mediation is not required because there is no deadlock. The contestation over Mbeki’s renewed involvement in Zimbabwe is odd. Mbeki is still recovering from the fallout of his humiliating resignation as South African president. Whether he still has the verve and authority to continue as mediator is unclear. The new South African president Kgalema Motlanthe has been quick to throw his weight behind Mbeki’s proposed continued mediation. Whether this is a reflection of his faith in Mbeki’s negotiation skills or is an attempt to duck having to deal with a difficult situation that may haunt his presidency in the manner it did Mbeki’s is also unclear.

However, the issue is less about whether Mbeki should continue in his role and the various motives at play. Mbeki’s efforts reached their peak when the power-sharing deal was signed. There is little he or any other mediator can add to the actual power-sharing process. The onus is on Zimbabwean politicians, particularly those in Zanu-PF, to show political maturity and commitment to the deal for the sake of national interest, and to foster trust and unity between each other and the nation. These qualities are rare in Zimbabwean political culture because in the place of civil dialogue there is uncivil dialogue. In the place of meritocracy there is seniority. In the place of a culture of conflict resolution there are "degrees in violence" guaranteeing particular political interests. In the place of issue-based politics there is labelling based on the extent of one’s liberation war credentials. Being the dominant nationalist party for approximately 40 years, Zanu-PF is guilty of having generated this political culture.

The result is that Zimbabwean politics has been rendered exclusive and impenetrable to those who seek to challenge the views of Zanu-PF. The party is the be all and end all and those outside of it are illegitimate. As former vice-president Simon Muzenda once noted, "If Zanu-PF puts up a baboon as a candidate, you vote for the baboon." Other leading Zanu-PF politicians such as Nathan Shamuyarira boast unselfconsciously that "the area of violence is an area where Zanu-PF has a very strong, long and successful history". And while individuals associated with the MDC have attempted to develop reasoned and democratic politics, both MDCs are susceptible to a politics akin to Zanu-PF’s. Opposition politics is also a habitat for violence and undemocratic practices. It too is characterised by personalised and immature politics, and contemptible invective such as the Tsvangirai MDC secretary general Tendai Biti’s public branding of rival MDC member Gift Chimanikire as a "smelly fat man who does not bath" and Chimanikire’s retort that Biti "suffered from diarrhoea".

A melancholy truth about Zimbabwean politics is its lack of gravitas. It is rudimentary, trifling, divisive, intolerant and blind to the national interest – this is the crux of the matter, not whether Mbeki should stay on as mediator and be called in. The Guardian (UK)