The international reaction to Morgan Tsvangirai's withdrawal from the presidential run-off election scheduled for 27 June 2008 may prove to be a key moment in the long-haul campaign to bring about political change and a return to democracy in Zimbabwe. Nelson Mandela's pithy reference to the country's "tragic failure of leadership" is only the most resonant of a range of critical judgments from African leaders; the latter enabled passage of an unprecedented and unanimous United Nations Security Council statement condemning violence against Zimbabwe's opposition and saying that this has rendered a free and fair poll impossible.
These international responses to the most recent brutal violations of human and civic rights in Zimbabwe have both cast a shadow over the (now) one-man election and created the sense of a new momentum in addressing the country's political and humanitarian crises. But is this the "tipping-point" over Robert Mugabe and his regime, or merely the end of the beginning?
A change of routine
For too long the international community has been at odds, with western demands for increased pressure upon the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) regime of Robert Mugabe being met with African (and notably South African) resistance. This week's events suggest that at long last the ground might be collapsing beneath Mugabe's feet.
Roger Southall is honorary research professor in the sociology of work programme, University of the Witwatersrand
Also by Roger Southall in openDemocracy:
"South African lessons for Kenya" (8 January 2008)
Roger Southall, "South Africa and Zimbabwe: the end of ‘quiet diplomacy'?" (29 April 2008)
The Zimbabwean president, in power since the country's birth in 1980, has proved remarkably adept at surviving a spectacular economic collapse and mega-inflation induced by his regime's own policies. He has managed this feat through a mix of military power, targeted repression, and political patronage; together, these mechanisms have enabled the political-military elite to resist every pressure if not actually to prosper. Critically, the project of the president and his cronies has been dressed up in an anti-imperialist, liberationist guise which hitherto has secured the necessary levels of African support to ensure continental and regional paralysis even in the face of mounting internal crisis.
Yet now, something seems to have snapped among those whose quiescence the regime has most relied on: Zimbabwe's own neighbours, even including some of Robert Mugabe's erstwhile "comrades". The regime's violent onslaught upon the politicians and supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the approach to the second round of the presidential election, and Mugabe's explicit declaration that he will not accept defeat, have provoked African leaders to indicate that the time has come for the 84-year-old president to go.
Mugabe is braving the storm and remains committed to proceeding with the election. The Zanu-PF perspective is that a ritualised Mugabe victory will provide the president with the legality he requires to appoint a government and members to the senate which will help neutralise the MDC majority in the national assembly. The calculation is that these manoeuvres would be followed by business as usual, where Mugabe can resume his game of playing the west off against Africa and juggling his regime's economic survival against mounting odds. But this time round, his and his followers' predicament looks more serious. Three new developments contribute to the state they're in.
A gathering chorus
First, Zanu-PF's intransigence in face of its undisputed loss of the parliamentary (and first-round presidential) elections on 29 March 2008 has stripped the regime of its declining continental legitimacy. African leaders from southern Africa who had already broken ranks - Levy Mwanawasa from Zambia and Ian Khama from Botswana - have now been backed by calls by counterparts in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and even Angola for Mugabe to play fair. It is particularly significant that the Mugabe regime is visibly draining South African support. While President Thabo Mbeki remains committed to his endless rounds of "quiet diplomacy", ANC president Jacob Zuma has become vocally scathing about the Mugabe regime's brutality and has accused it of riding roughshod over the ideals of the struggle for African liberation (see "South Africa and Zimbabwe: the end of ‘quiet diplomacy'?", 29 April 2008).
Second, growing African impatience with Mugabe is slowly but surely taking institutional form. The current electoral observers from the African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) have been scorned in the media for remaining supine and hotel-bound, yet interestingly African criticism of Mugabe has increasingly been versed in terms of the aspirations and adopted electoral and human-rights norms formally adopted by both organisations. Even more interesting is that President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia, currently SADC chairman, chose to issue a call for the postponement of the 27 June vote on behalf of the organisation, despite the fact that he had managed to make contact with leaders of only four of its fourteen member-countries. Meanwhile, lawyers are lining up to declare the run-off election illegal in terms of Zimbabwe's own constitution. In short, Mugabe can no longer expect to enjoy SADC's tolerance, let alone its active support.
Third, the change in the African mood has given courage to western powers to call for stiffer action. Hitherto, western condemnation of the Mugabe regime, backed by the imposition of "smart sanctions" against the elite, has been widely regarded in Africa as suspect, and may indeed have been counterproductive in that it has enabled Mugabe to beat the anti-British and anti-imperial drum. Yet now Britain has felt sufficiently emboldened by African criticism of Mugabe to call for Zimbabwe's power-supplies to be cut off, and for South Africa to block electricity supplies.
So what are the immediate prospects for "Zimbusting" and forcing a change in regime? Why should Mugabe concede to pressures which he has consistently defied before? And how far are his African neighbours prepared to go in curtailing his regime's survival?
Among openDemocracy's many articles on Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe:
Bev Clark, "Mass evictions in Zimbabwe" (13 June 2005)
Netsai Mushonga, "Two nights in Harare's police cells" (5 December 2005)
Andrew Meldrum, "Zimbabwe between past and future" (23 June 2006)
Conor O'Loughlin, "Zimbabwean travails" (13 September 2006)
Stephen Chan, "Farewell, Robert Mugabe" (20 March 2007)
Michael Holman, "Dizzy worms in Zimbabwe" (13 September 2007)
The Zimbabwean, "Zimbabwe votes - and waits" (31 March 2008),
Wilf Mbanga, "Zimbabwe's unfolding drama" (7 April 2008)
openDemocracy, ""Zimbabwe's elections: an African appeal" (20 June 2008)
Jabu Shoko, "Zimbabwe: a tale of two leaders" (23 June 2008)
A scaling pressure
The initial change, which extends far more than diplomatic nicety, is that the Mugabe government risks becoming even more an international pariah than it was before. Electoral analysis and sheer commonsense have all pointed to the fact that the two previous rounds of parliamentary and presidential elections in Zimbabwe were grossly manipulated, one way or another, to secure an outcome favourable to Zanu-PF, but fellow African regimes were prepared to look the other way and endorse the official results. Not so this time. Mugabe's "victory" in the presidential election will not be accepted, and his claim to internal legitimacy will be challenged.
It appears likely that the legality of his regime after the election will not be recognised by the SADC, and that the African Union (which is preparing for a summit in Sharm al-Sheikh on 30 June-1 July 2008) will follow suit. This would in turn lead to the possibility of Zimbabwe being suspended or expelled from United Nations bodies (although not from the UN itself). Mugabe has been enabled to wriggle past western restrictions on his international travel by attending meetings of the UN, but this option might then be closed down. In that event, his wife Grace will have to make do with the bare shelves of the shops in Harare, as Mugabe follows the ghost of Ian Smith down the path to international isolation.
It is worth asking whether neighbouring countries will advance this process by curtailing supplies of energy and oil to Zimbabwe. This is unlikely in the short term, but it shouldn't be ruled out as a possibility. The spiralling rise in the international price of oil must already be placing exorbitant demands upon Zimbabwe's derelict economy, severely compromising both its ability to pay its suppliers in foreign currency and the willingness of neighbours to endure debt. Meanwhile, the flow of remittances from Zimbabwe migrants in the region to their families - a key factor both in keeping the latter alive and providing a source of foreign currency - is itself likely to come under severe pressure, as inflation takes its toll upon employment and earnings throughout the region.
It is against this background that the changing South African situation is likely to become increasingly critical. While Mbeki has justifiably earned credit for securing the electoral conditions which provided for an MDC victory in the 29 March 2008 elections, his policy of quiet diplomacy is otherwise threadbare. The call is now out from within the ANC - and notably its partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) - for talk to be backed by muscle. A border blockade could find remarkable popularity, especially in the lead-up to the 2009 election campaign. Even segments of the business community, expressed by leaders in the financial press, are now calling for the imposition of sanctions.
Above all, South Africa at large has been shaken by the recent outbursts of xenophobic violence against foreigners and is correspondingly alarmed by the prospect of an even greater flow of refugees from Zimbabwe if the situation becomes even worse than it presently is. The financial costs in terms of border control, administration, policing and competition with locals on the job market are already huge, while the costs in terms of the political and investment uncertainty that massive migrancy inflow generates are dangerously unknown and unpredictable. What goes for South Africa, increasingly goes for the region as a whole: Zimbabwe appears as a dangerous vacuum in a regionally stretched economy.
The present indications are that the region will give increasingly forceful backing to Mbeki's pleas to both Mugabe and Tsvangirai to agree to a Kenya-style "government of national unity" (GoNU), probably linked to plans for the conduct of a free and fair election within six to twelve months. If this reduces the prospect of a descent into civil war and provides some sort of opening to a better future, so be it. But questions abound. Even if Morgan Tsvangirai offers to serve for an interim period under a Robert Mugabe who he claims with justification to have beaten in an election, what guarantees could he be given that the regime would adhere to any agreement and honour the results of a free election? What guarantee that the security forces would withdraw to the barracks and acknowledge civilian authority?
A new motion
Any credible answer to these and related questions depends on carrots and sticks. Much is made of the prospect of an "honourable" exit for Mugabe and amnesty for him and his politico-military cronies from domestic and international prosecution for multiple offences against domestic and international laws covering a myriad of crimes from corruption to genocide. Such concessions, distasteful though they may be, will have to be convincing (especially in the light of Charles Taylor's arraignment before the special court for Sierra Leone in the premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, following the revocation of his immunity from prosecution in Nigeria). A massive infusion of international economic assistance and humanitarian relief, with particular material acknowledgment by Britain of its historic responsibility for the present mess, will also be called for.
Yet to be effective, such a breakthrough would require consistent and focused international pressure. This would include serious international supervision of the electoral process (eventually with an army of international monitors - not just observers - on the ground) and very possibly a significant presence of African peacekeeping troops (in the name of either or both the AU and UN) to neutralise the influence of the Zimbabwean military.
There has been little indication from Mbeki hitherto that his recommendation of a GoNU carries real weight, his preference for a reformed (if preferably Mugabe-less) Zanu-PF over the MDC having long gone before him. But circumstances are changing rapidly, with drastic action needed to prevent Zimbabwe falling further into the abyss. The silver lining is that for the first time there are prospects of Africa and the west coming together on how to deal with Robert Mugabe, and in doing so offering a glimmer of light to Zimbabwe's hard-pressed people.