Leaders of Africa must act now to save Zimbabwe
Leaders of Africa must act now to save Zimbabwe
Op-Ed / Africa 4 minutes

Leaders of Africa must act now to save Zimbabwe

Leaders of Africa must act now to save Zimbabwe. Without a settlement, mass action and draconian responses will go on, increasing the likelihood of collapse. Are winds of change beginning to blow in Zimbabwe, or is it just a lull in the political hurricane? An unexpected moment of civility between President Robert Mugabe's Zanu (PF) party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) might be a rare chance to restore some calm to Zimbabwe. But success will depend on a negotiation process in which SA's role will be crucial. Further delay will almost certainly mean even greater turbulence in Zimbabwe's future. Reasons to act now are many. There is agitation from within the ruling and opposition parties as well as from Zimbabwean civil society for a negotiated solution, and widespread consensus that such a deal is the only viable means for resolving Zimbabwe's ills. Zanu (PF) is showing signs of fragmentation.

Even Mugabe has been talking about succession - although this may be a delaying tactic on his part. Despite this mood the MDC is still facing massive attack by the state, and if party leader Morgan Tsvangirai is convicted of treason in a legally specious case the party may be pushed beyond the possibility of compromise. Recent MDC gestures - such as attending Mugabe's speech opening parliament and indicating that a swift conclusion to negotiations would be ideal, rendering unnecessary its court challenge to the results of last year's presidential election - are signs of the opposition's willingness to negotiate. Zanu (PF) leaders know they must turn the economy around. Important party figures are speaking of the need to rebuild bridges with the International Monetary Fund and investors. Assets they stole or bought at rock-bottom prices are largely worthless without investment and trade opportunities. The incentives have shifted, from organised chaos in which assets could be stolen, to normalisation so they can profit from the booty. Although the state is in the process of slow-motion failure it has not yet collapsed like Liberia or Somalia. If it does collapse, mediation will be much more difficult - as will post-crisis reconstruction. All the more reason to act swiftly.

Without settlement, waves of mass action and civil disobedience will continue, provoking more Draconian state responses and increasing the potential for state collapse. The dire humanitarian emergency will worsen as incomes deteriorate, unemployment and inflation soar and crime and food insecurity increase. There is an urgent need to stop the suffering of Zimbabwe's people.

The land issue requires resolution urgently, and this cannot happen without legitimate political leadership. Here, justice objectives must be balanced against the need for economic growth and food security. If not, the agricultural sector will continue to decline, and foreign and domestic investment will not resume. The meeting between presidents George Bush and Thabo Mbeki in Pretoria on July 9 provided positive momentum towards bringing Zimbabwe's parties to the negotiating table. There is a sense of unity of purpose after months of disparity between African and western leaders. This meeting should also mute public criticism in the west of perceived South African inaction, removing a persistent obstacle to more robust South African engagement.

If no progress is seen soon there will probably be another wave of western pressure on Zanu (PF), causing further division between the west and Africa, which Mugabe will happily exploit. Such pressure should be revived if there is no progress towards meaningful talks, but it should be held in abeyance while the process is being cultivated.

As time goes on and the situation deteriorates, international willingness to fund reconstruction efforts generously will diminish, removing a significant carrot for resolution. More transparent planning for economic rehabilitation would provide an important incentive at this point in the diplomatic effort.

Should no African-led negotiation effort be initiated, it is likely that there will be further negative effects on western backing for institutions such as the African Union (AU) and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad). Significant additional western support for these institutions depends largely on signs that they are addressing African problems. While African leaders are showing greater leadership in crisis prevention and response in many parts of the continent, Zimbabwe remains an exception - one that, for multiple and complex reasons, the west remains focused on.

Zimbabwe's churches are building the foundations for a serious negotiations process by facilitating inter-party contact. That both sides are looking for a solution and are willing to engage with the churches is a positive sign. However, the churches, lacking leverage and capacity, can take any process only so far. SA has always indicated that it did not want to initiate negotiations between the two parties, but that it would support such a process if Zimbabweans started it. The process has started.

The situation cries out for SA's deeper engagement, whether through the AU, the Southern African Development Community or some other mechanism. A serious, internationally supported negotiation is the only route to a solution in Zimbabwe. Informal talks are no substitute for such a formal diplomatic process.

Other crisis zones in Africa such as Liberia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi (agreements in the latter two negotiated by SA) are much harder cases than Zimbabwe. The challenges in those countries require much more in the way of resources, military muscle and diplomatic engagement. African leaders have taken up that challenge and could reach a settlement in Zimbabwe at a much lower cost. The time to act is now.

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