TOPICS: To save Zimbabwe, S Africa must step in

John Hughes

Once one of the most beautiful and bountiful lands in Africa, Zimbabwe is fast becoming the worst disaster on the continent since Rwanda and Darfur. Under the ruthless rule of its despotic strongman, Robert Mugabe, its economy is near collapse and its people live in fear, as the regime cracks down on political opponents. Thousands have died of malnutrition and starvation. So many have been buried in their remote villages that nobody can be sure what is now the actual population.

Mismanagement of the economy has produced inflation of an incredible 231 million per cent, a figure undoubtedly outdated even as this piece is written. The ordinary staples of existence are beyond reach of most citizens. The public health system is in dire straits. Foreign journalists are persona non grata and humanitarian workers from the rest of the world are screened and often denied entry. The UN Security Council is due to take up the Zimbabwe situation momentarily but Russia and China would surely veto any military action. Even aside from such a veto, European powers such as Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, and Germany, which have a history of colonial rule in parts of Africa, have little credibility for a military foray into Zimbabwe.

The US is untainted by such a colonial background in Africa but is still regarded with suspicion by a number of African countries. Furthermore, Zimbabwe is of little strategic interest to Washington, which has more pressing concerns in the Middle East and Asia. What of African nations then? Some have deplored Mugabe’s excesses, but none seems eager to participate in an African expeditionary force marching upon Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, to depose a leader who helped put the colonial power to rout, however badly he may have turned out.

Which brings us to South Africa — the wealthiest and most developed country on the African continent. Its influence is substantial. It has a vested interest in developments in Zimbabwe, its neighbour to the north. Cholera has spread across the border. A steady stream of refugees

flees across the border seeking food, shelter, and work. Yet the South African government has been disgracefully remiss in not using its substantial political and economic heft to end the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe. Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, is the designated African negotiator supposed to be bringing some harmony to Zimbabwe in the shape of power-sharing between the Mugabe forces and opposition political leaders who claim they have been swindled out of a recent election victory. It is not going well.

The South African government itself includes former freedom fighters in its ranks. Instead of demanding reform or the resignation of Mugabe, they have been treating him gingerly. He does not deserve it. Instead of freedom, he has brought despair and tyranny to millions of Zimbabweans. South Africa fought bravely for its own freedom. It should help Zimbabwe achieve the same.