In the past, the West routinely harangued the ailing 85-year-old dictator, a former liberation hero who has ruled for 29 years. Western capitals and human rights groups have urged Africa to do the same, believing that the continent needed to recognize its own problems and sort them out. A few African leaders, like those in Botswana and Uganda, obliged.
But the few powers with any influence over Mugabe’s isolationist regime – South Africa and the 15-country Southern African Development Community (SADC) – tended to avoid public attacks. A year ago, albeit after a full decade of repression, that "quiet diplomacy," to use former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s phrase, finally helped yield a power-sharing deal between Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the longtime opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Now the depressing pattern – vitriolic, ineffective attacks from the West; silent or unhurried action from Africa – has begun to change. Since February, when MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was installed as Prime Minister, the focus has shifted from securing a deal to heal Zimbabwe’s political divide, to implementing it.
South Africa’s stance has changed too. Mbeki’s successor, Jacob Zuma, whose track record as a mediator includes facilitating peace between South Africa’s Zulus and Xhosa in 1994 and between warring factions in Burundi in 2005, has a blunter style. As Zuma prepared to depart for Zimbabwe last month, his aide (and secretary-general of his party, the African National Congress) Gwede Mantashe said Zuma "will be more vocal in terms of what we see as deviant behavior," adding all sides in Zimbabwe must understand they did not have the "luxury of adolescent behavior. You must be more mature. You must engage."
The international community seems to agree: A World Bank delegation visited Zimbabwe earlier this year to assess whether to resume aid delivery (verdict: yes, but not too much); the International Monetary Fund has dispersed $510 million in aid this month; and individual donations amounting to another $500 million have come in from the U.S., Britain and other Western powers.
This weekend, a European delegation makes the E.U.’s first official visit to Zimbabwe since it imposed sanctions on Mugabe and his lieutenants in 2002. Mugabe welcomed them "with open arms" before the talks began in Harare on Saturday. But E.U. development commissioner Karel De Gucht, who is leading the two-day mission with Swedish development minister Gunilla Carlsson, was careful not to name names before he set off. "There is an urgent need for all parties to fulfill their obligations," he said. "By doing this, the E.U. can once again fully re-engage with Zimbabwe and help the country on its return to normality and prosperity."
But some outside players remain stuck in the same old ruts. A SADC summit this month in Kinshasa somehow contrived to remove Zimbabwe – the most pressing issue facing the region – from its agenda, resolving merely that a committee of three SADC members would "review" progress on power-sharing between Mugabe and Tsvangirai. Mugabe himself continues to delay the formation of a unity government, while his top brass seem focused on squirreling away as much cash as they can for as long as they are able. Mugabe’s foot soldiers continue to harass, imprison and murder MDC activists.
The reality is that a legitimate transfer of power away from Zimbabwe’s one and only leader since full independence was never going to be quick. As a Western diplomat in Harare says: "We used to say we want elections. But Tsvangirai says he needs time to build institutions, and he’s right. As we’ve seen in Zimbabwe, elections with the present institutions are no guarantee of change." In 2008, Mugabe unleashed a fresh wave of repression against the MDC after losing a general election, violence that ultimately prolonged his rule. The fervent hope among the MDC’s impatient supporters is that change will precede the death of the old tyrant, who is visibly frail these days, but whose demise might still be years away.