Zimbabwe: The Despot, His Friends and the Twisted 'Road to Zero'

It is strange how South Africans occasionally seem to suffer from a serious bout of collective amnesia; who remembers that it was Motlanthe, who – as head of the South African observer mission to the massively rigged Zimbabwean elections in 2002 – declared that poll to be "free, fair and credible"?

Now, at this crucial meeting, he asks two of the parties to the dispute (Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara) to withdraw from the discussions, while allowing President Robert Mugabe – the cause of the ever-worsening problem – to participate as judge, jury, and "condoner" of his own illegitimate actions. Once again, placating Mugabe was a total cop-out and an absurd caricature of SADC even-handedness 

Sadly, amid Zimbabwe’s slide into political and economic oblivion, the brethren leaders of the subcontinent without fail close ranks in solidarity with Mugabe (often massaging his overblown ego as a "liberation hero"), sometimes feebly attempting to cajole him, maybe half-heartedly cautioning him in private, but publicly defending their virtual complicity in the systematic retrogression of that country into a totalitarian state.

More often than not, SADC heads of state – with the exception, on occasion, of the presidents of Botswana and Tanzania – have shown themselves to be spineless weaklings, propping up a megalomaniac and offering no real leadership.

One should be mindful of the admonition that "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing".

The infamous, tired and worn-out policy of quiet diplomacy – former president Thabo Mbeki’s SADC-sanctioned efforts to mediate between the opposing parties in Zimbabwe — was always doomed to failure, because it was essentially underpinned by disinformation, obfuscation and procrastination.

From the outset, Mbeki’s bias towards the Mugabe regime – what, with apologies to Chester Crocker, can be called "unconstructive non-engagement" — disqualified him from playing the role of honest broker.

Through his (and now SADC’s) fumbling efforts, Mbeki seems to communicate to the world that elections should be as "free and fair" as is necessary to return the ruling party to power.

Clearly, this is the bottom line for ruling government ideologues in the region — no national liberation movement government (Swapo, the MPLA, Zanu (PF), the African National Congress, and Frelimo) should ever lose or relinquish power, most of all not through legal constitutional or electoral means.

However, March 29 should have changed all this: the Movement for Democratic Change’s (MDC’s) victory in the parliamentary and presidential poll in Zimbabwe has now confronted these governments with the spectre of the domino effect, or the feared "Nicaragua phenomenon" – that is, the loss of power through (yes, even) grossly rigged and manipulated electoral processes.

Events in Zimbabwe (and Kenya) illustrate that in the evolution of what is taken for democracy in Africa, the tyrant’s weapon of choice has evolved from the military coup to the stuffed ballot box.

Former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan’s "Kenyan solution" merely papered over the cracks in the political fabric of Kenyan society and now Mbeki (and SADC leaders) disingenuously want to superimpose their own version of a "government of national unity" on Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, as it did in Kenya, it will merely condone electoral fraud on a massive scale and lead to the undermining of the MDC, which will be regarded as the "junior partner" in this unholy alliance. No wonder, then, that two months after reaching a "power-sharing deal" in Harare on September 15, a workable government could not be constructed.

Mbeki must have been daft to hurry into a formal signing ceremony of an "agreement" that should have set out the crux of any deal: the allocation of extremely important ministries, such as finance, home affairs, defence, information, foreign affairs, and control of the intelligence services.

Mugabe’s mantra is that Zimbabwe should have its own definition of democracy and that autocracy can be described as "the will of the people". So compromised by years of abuse of power, he and his security chiefs can only continue to hang on at any cost, even if it means bringing down the country with them.

To paraphrase a Somali writer in a different context: he has indeed put Zimbabwe on "the road to zero". The personality cult built around him and his entire personality make-up (of which vanity, or a "grandiose sense of self", is but one characteristic) argues against national reconciliation and a South African-propagated government of national unity.

Mugabe is the epitome of arrogance – observe the body language, the swagger. It is not within Mugabe’s psyche to relinquish power: suffering from what is known as a "bureaucratic-compulsive syndrome", he has become more and more dogmatic, inflexible and paranoid over the years. Indeed, Mugabe "has not a single redeeming defect" – as Benjamin Disraeli so aptly said of William Gladstone.

So, one should heed Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert’s warning: the most dangerous moment for a democracy is not the founding elections, but when the incumbent government experiences a crisis in leadership and is defeated at the polls. Clearly, the ultimate test for democracy is the willingness of the vanquished incumbent to cede power to its victorious opponent – not to cling stubbornly to the reins of power.

In the final analysis, the suspicion remains that the MDC is being set up as the fall guy, while Zanu (PF) continues to control the so-often repressive levers of state power.Dr Venter is a former executive director of the Africa Institute of SA and currently runs a Pretoria-based political risk analysis unit, Africa Consultancy & Research.