Zimbabwe's political impasse: a tribute to Thabo Mbeki

OPINION – By the time this letter is published, it is most likely that the former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki will no longer be the mediator of the internal political conflict in Zimbabwe. I can now safely air my views publicly as to how I think he handled the dispute.

First of all, as a conflict resolution expert, I know-fully well that it was a very difficult task for Thabo Mbeki just to get Mugabe, Tsvangirai and Mutambara to agree to come to a negotiating, table. Secondly, the fact that he got them to actually start negotiating a peaceful settlement over their dispute is quite an achievement on his part.

Thirdly, as a mediator of Zimbabwe’s political dispute, he actually did very well.This is despite the fact that at some point during the process of the negotiation MDC leadership showed lack of confidence in the mediator.

I argue that this was mainly due to frustration on their part because of ZANU-PF’s unpredictability and unwillingness to negotiate power -sharing with the former than it was with the mediator. Not only did Thabo Mbeki succeed to get the three participants over the post-Presidential election crisis to a negotiating table but he also successfully facilitated a signed power sharing agreement between them on September 15, 2008. To me, he fulfilled the mandate that SADC had given him, albeit insufficient and weak support from the structure as well as unconstructive publicity.

Throughout, non-diplomats and lay persons in the area of conflict mediation have criticised Quiet Diplomacy and perceived Mbeki as "soft" on Mugabe. First of all, diplomacy is the opposite of war. You engage in a peaceful mechanism to resolve conflict in order to minimise its negative effects such as an open war like what prevails in the DRC. Despite post-election violence, human rights abuses, ever-deteriorating economy, starvation and suffering of the people of Zimbabwe that continue to this day, through SADC initiated intervention, Mbeki helped that country to avert an open civil war. There is no way in which a credible mediator can make the confidential proceedings of discussions such as those Mbeki handled publicly. Secondly, Mbeki’s "softness" on Mugabe is totally unfounded and ridiculous. He would not hope to achieve a sustainable agreement by all the three parties if he favoured one of them. Those who advance this view are being unfair on Mbeki.

I have no doubt that he had a credible team of professional advisors on conflict resolution on his side. I cannot begin to imagine how challenging it was for Mbeki to convince Mugabe to sit down with his arch-rival – Tsvangirai. We all heard what Mugabe said on September 15 regarding how as ZANU-PF they would sharply disagree with MDC’s demands or expectations and vice-versa. That is the nature of negotiations.

The statement by Jacob Zuma (ANC President) that SADC leaders should pressurise Zimbabwe’s political antagonists to reach an agreement shows how wanting he is on the area of conflict resolution. A sustainable peace process cannot be manufactured or manipulated for convenience. You cannot instruct or dictate to participants involved in an internal peaceful conflict process a timetable and start issuing them with threats. As a facilitator, you risk losing credibility with them when you do that. Zimbabwe’s political conflict may well be with us for quite some time.

The three actors have to be supported to openly engage those issues that they differ on (not engage one another) until they reach a compromise that shall significantly reduce or eradicate those conditions that are the causes of the current crisis. There can be no short-cuts. It is both ironic and unsurprising that Zuma (who advocates for an unworkable mechanism over Zimbabwe’s internal conflict) is directly or indirectly the reason for an abortion of the peace process that was facilitated by Mbeki.

The unceremonious dismissal of Mbeki as President of South Africa has inadventedly weakened his image in the eyes of the political rivals in Zimbawe. If his own country has shown no confidence in him, I find it difficult for anyone else to do so. The Zuma camp’s "boy-scout" mentality has further entrenched Zimbabwe’s conflict.

The current crisis-riddled and misdirected ANC government should not have asked Mbeki to continue as the mediator over that conflict after dismissing him as President. Given the institutional weaknesses of SADC to resolve conflicts, it remains to be seen to what extent the one (s) who shall take over from Mbeki as the mediator (s) in Zimbabwe shall succeed. Motlanthe’s ascendancy to South African Presidency has coincided with that country’s turn to chair SADC. As an "heir apparent" to Zuma whose "hardline" position (though this approach has not worked for his own organisation) as opposed to Mbeki’s "soft" one in relation to Mugabe is characterised by a tone of impatience. Should Motlanthe adopt Zuma’s hardline stand of impatience and intolerance towards Mugabe, he (Mugabe) may simply harden up and make it virtually impossible for any further talks in future.

Way forward for zimbabwe

There are two things that have clearly emerged in light of Zimbabwe and Kenya’s’most recent political conflict and Mbeki’s mediation role. First, SADC citizens are still unfamiliar with Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanism. Secondly, SADC and the AU need to fully-develop and strengthen peaceful conflict resolution strategies that are peculiar and relevant to Africa’s disputes.

These strategies should be facilitated by non-partisan and credible professionals and must also be inclusive of non-politician stakeholders such as the civil society (community leaders, the church, trade unions, women organisations and youth formations), but not exclusive of politicians.

Peaceful resolution of conflict, rather than the "cow-boy gun-slinging" military approach is the model of the future.

Even America has now realised that no matter how much you disagree with your opponent or dislike your enemy, you have to engage them in dialogue at some point. Africa needs to put institutions that support this mechanism in place.

The fact that there so much frustration, despair and burn-out due to Zimbabwe’s political conflict is because SADC and AU’s leaders and institutions are not fully equipped to deal with it. In my view, SADC, not Mbeki, failed to resolve Zimbabwe’s political crisis.

What Zimbabwe’s political rivals need to be encouraged to do through skillful diplomatic means is to go for another round of elections, financed and supervised by the international community. Behind the scenes, critical assurances and compromises have to be made, particularly unconditional immunity from prosecution of ZANU-PF top leaders in future.

That is the reason why the Ministry of Home Affairs is critical. Both fresh elections and diplomatic engagements should be followed up with a national reconciliation mechanism. Who is up to the challenge? Can President Motlanthe do it? Can SADC do it? There is need to take the mediation process to the next level.

Mbeki has successfully played his part. To him I say, well done Sir! Should he consider taking his international assignment of peaceful resolution of conflict to another level and possibly team up with men like Kofi Annan, I would be the first one to volunteer to work with them.

*Leslie S. Dodzi-Botsie is a Development Studies and Educationist who specialises in Conflict Resolution (M.A.). He works and lives in Botswana.