You too will remember where you were on the day Mugabe dies.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s inane giggle (testified to by those who have seen him up close and nervous) came straight to mind when I read the Presbyterian-sounding judgement of Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary.

The ruling paved the way for the stomach-churning scenes of Lockerbie bomber Mr al-Megrahi returning to a hero’s welcome in Tripoli.

MacAskill said the justice system demanded that judgement be imposed but that compassion be available. He accepted medical advice that al-Megrahi had terminal prostate cancer: “Mr al-Megrahi faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court in any jurisdiction in any land could revoke or overrule.” Mugabe comes to mind because, like al-Megrahi, he never showed any compassion, although his victims are numbered in the millions rather than the hundreds. But, unlike the Lockerbie bomber, he will escape censure and punishment in this life. For Mugabe remains president in a Faustian, but necessary, power-sharing arrangement with the Movement for Democratic Change (the legitimate ruling party). But, for God’s sake, let him not find any kind of redemption or “compassion” in this, his final act.

I still find the entire Mugabe phenomenon baffling. Some in our ruling party and outside led us to believe for a long time that the fiercest opposition to the Mugabe regime comes from the West, its alleged stooges in the MDC and the dispossessed white farmers. Few South Africans still would acknowledge that the main victims of the regime’s misrule were ordinary black Zimbabweans, Shona and Ndebele, urban and rural, even when an estimated three million of those same black Zimbabweans live in exile among us.

The common consensus is, and I am sure it is echoed in thousands of prepared obituaries stored in hard-drives across the world, that Mr Mugabe’s peculiar domestic mix of doctrinaire socialism and semi-free enterprise economy seemed to work in the early 1980s, bringing relative prosperity and social progress in the form of healthcare and education to the black population.

But I stress: that is how it seemed! Few paid scant attention in 1982 when Mugabe nationalised all the daily newspapers and turned them into the mouthpiece of his party; or, more shamefully, from 1983 to 1987 when the Korean-trained Fifth Brigade committed mass murder (some would say genocide) in Matabeleland, where people traditionally supported his rival, the late Dr Joshua Nkomo.

As this once veritable African garden slipped into a Dante-esque vision of hell, Mr Mugabe’s brutal government was buoyed by populist support, which justified his authoritarian misrule within an inverted discourse of redress for colonial injustice and imperialism.

Let us not lazily paint this an exclusively “black-on-black” error. The former National Party government and human rights activists of all colours, including people such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and even my liberal heroine, the late Helen Suzman, took a long time before they started criticising Mr Mugabe. World leaders were no different, which is why the Matabele massacres went almost unnoticed by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, et al, except, of course, by the Matabele! The world’s failure to speak up for Mugabe’s victims has a long history and has contributed to his sense of impunity.

(I sometimes wonder now if it was this same inversion which — inadvertently, for he is certainly not an evil man — led Thabo Mbeki to invert colonial narratives that led to the HIV/Aids genocide “by sloth”).

And this is it. This is where we all across Africa, and in the corridors of power in the West, blundered. This is where lies our, South African, complicity in the failure of Mr Mugabe’s regime. We all let the situation in Zimbabwe degenerate while we blithely marched to the drum of freedom, celebrated human rights, promoted reconciliation, and “respected” the rule of law.

Tony Blair recently said there was a solid case for military intervention in Zimbabwe, but he should know that there is little appetite for military adventures that go rogue in the post-Bush world. The remaining shreds of the late Robin Cook’s “ethical foreign policy” have been torch lit by Libya’s high grade oil, in a shrouded mystery of semtex and a crazed colonel.

Yet for all our past neglect (I say this as a dual SA/UK citizen), Africa’s stand on human rights is changing, and those who once seemed beyond the reach of justice may find that public statements of support from fellow leaders will evaporate once they step down or are forced from power. Many of the former leadership in Rwanda and Sierra Leone are now on trial, and one-time Liberian President, Charles Taylor, is locked up at The Hague.

Mugabe will not go on trial for his evil crimes. But let him know that when he skulks into our country, he is here under sufferance. We acknowledge his presence because we respect the sovereignty of the Zimbabwean people to resolve their situation by peaceful means. Let him be left in no doubt that the politeness afforded him by our ministers and diplomats are common courtesies: the perfunctory gestures of civilised people. He should know, too, that when he grips the sleeves of our president grinningly for the media, that no one — not one person — is taken in. Nor should he think for one moment that the inherent morality of the South African people which brought our ruling party to power is, somehow, magically transferred to him.

And we, for our part, in five years or so, will only show sombre satisfaction when Zimbabwe posts economic growth of 7, 8 or 10%. Because we know that the growth rate of any shattered economy, like Rwanda, Angola or Mozambique, looks spectacular because it starts from a zero base. We will know too, that, like here, the inner wounds of a broken people will not heal in our lifetime. So yes, accountability is on the march, and better late than never! Let us hope it comes soon to Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s rule is nearly over! The darkest time of night is just before sunrise. In the small hours of the morning, Mugabe must know he too will face “a sentence imposed by a higher power”. You too will remember where you were on the day Robert Gabriel Mugabe dies. The article was originally published in The Mail & Guardian (SA).