Tragedy to farce
History of co-option and obliteration of opposition ignored in Mbeki’s mediation of Zimbabwe crisis
IN AN APPARENT ATTEMPT to convey the complexity of transforming South Africa’s political economy, President Thabo Mbeki – in a state of the nation address soon after his election – invoked the aphorism of the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral: “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” These days that statement is an obtuse irony, not least because of the ease with which Mbeki has claimed moral victories but particularly with regard to the more recent sense of triumph with which he declared his mediation of the Zimbabwean crisis a breakthrough.
Soon after the public announcement last week, the power-sharing agreement between the MDC and Zanu (PF) deadlocked. What that confirmed was that Mbeki’s declaration of a breakthrough was premature – maybe even expedient and ill conceived. What was originally hailed as a “historic moment” is now proving itself to be what it was all along – a farce, albeit an elaborate one conjured by Mbeki-speak to help his man in Harare maintain power with the illusion of democracy.
Until the announcement of the deadlock, I was continually amazed at how positively the ongoing secret talks about the creation of a government of national unity in Zimbabwe were being reported. Despite the fact the process was a media blackout, SA’s press continued to speculate positively on a process about which they knew nothing. Equally surprising was the credit bestowed on Mbeki for having brokered the so-called “deal” between the parties when there was still no indication whether the fruits of his labour would yield any kind of positive outcome for the estimated 4m Zimbabweans living in SA.
The popular view peddled in reports was that Mbeki was the primary impetus behind the MDC’s and Robert Mugabe’s decision to negotiate a government of national unity. But the reality is that Tsvangirai’s decision is primarily a result of his own fatigue and not Mbeki’s intervention. To put that in its proper perspective, soon after the national election just a few months ago, the MDC rejected an offer of a government of national unity, arguing that a transitional arrangement was needed as a precondition for a free and fair democratic election.
That seemed sensible at the time. And who should know better than Mbeki – a prime mover behind the push for similar preconditions during the talks with the National Party in the run-up to the settlement that led to the 1994 democratic election in SA.
But the most concerning aspect of the Zimbabwean talks isn’t what sham agreement will be reached (because there’s little doubt the final result will favour the incumbent Zanu (PF) leadership), but whether or not Mugabe will even honour such an agreement and finally relinquish the presidency. To answer that question you need only look back to the days of the Lancaster House settlement that resulted in the co-option by Mugabe of Zimbabwean African People’s Union (Zapu) founder and leader Joshua Nkomo – still regarded as the father of Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence.
Turn the clock back to a year after Nkomo founded Zapu: There was a split with the nation’s Shona majority under the leadership of his former lieutenant, Mugabe. Nkomo came from Zimbabwe’s Ndebele minority. The rivalry between Nkomo and Mugabe continued throughout the war as Zapu’s Zipra militia continued to fight with the backing of the Soviet Union while Zanu received support from China.
After the Lancaster House accord was signed in 1980, paving the way for elections, Nkomo’s party was defeated as they trailed Mugabe’s 57 to 20 seats in the new, 100-seat parliament. Although Nkomo joined the first Mugabe coalition government in the House of Home Affairs, there was no harmony. Over the next three years Zimbabwe’s opposition party was systematically destroyed as ethnic tensions between the Ndebele and Shona tribes within Zimbabwe continued to rise. Mugabe repeatedly accused Nkomo of attempting to overthrow his government as Zimbabwe teetered on the brink of civil war.
Soon after, Nkomo was forced into exile, fearing for his life as the North Koreantrained Fifth Brigade (a notorious band of armed thugs loyal to Mugabe) sealed off his power base in the Ndebele people’s stronghold of Bulawayo. It wasn’t until 1987 that an agreement was reached with Nkomo for a government of national unity that effectively spelt the end for the opposition in Zimbabwe. The agreement led to Nkomo becoming one of two vice-presidents.
However, the nature of the deal was such that Zapu was swallowed up by Mugabe’s Zanu (PF) – rendering Zimbabwe a one-party state. As vice-president, Nkomo was relegated to obscurity and his career followed a steady decline until his death in 1999.
The point? In creating the appearance of a coalition government, Mugabe was able to decisively eliminate the opposition in Zimbabwe without ever relinquishing or sharing power. Therefore it’s not surprising 15 years later he’s using the same strategy to quell the rising tide against him. But this time it’s not a tragedy but a farce – a charade conducted with the knowledge and full consent of SA’s Government. Left unchecked, Mugabe will again ensure his reign of terror will continue unabated and that Zimbabwe’s new opposition movement will be obliterated, just like its predecessor.
As this is my last column in Finweek, I would like to thank Finweek readers for their support, participation and patronage in what has been one of the most enlightening and constructive experiences of my life. I look forward to a continued relationship with my readers in my future endeavours.