Passing the colonial buck

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 15/08/07):

South African president Thabo Mbeki’s attempt to blame Britain for Zimbabwe’s problems may convince fellow leaders at the Southern African Development Community‘s summit in Lusaka this week. But it is unlikely to bring a peaceful resolution of the country’s crisis any closer – and is certain to deepen misgivings about perceived anti-western tendencies in South Africa’s international outlook.

The SADC asked Mr Mbeki to mediate between Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change after a brutal crackdown on government critics, including the beating of the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, caused international repulsion earlier this year.

But regional analysts say that despite claims to the contrary, Mr Mbeki has made little substantive progress in bridging the gulf between the two sides. “He will put the best shine of his efforts, which are in all probability failing miserably, and that will suit the SADC because they don’t want to do anything anyway,” said one observer.

According to leaks to South African media, Mr Mbeki’s report backs Mr Mugabe’s claims that British-orchestrated sanctions are the principal cause of Zimbabwe’s woes, including hyper-inflation and accelerating economic meltdown – and that the government is effectively the target of a “regime change” plot hatched in London with US backing.

Characterising the situation as a “bilateral dispute with Britain”, the Mbeki report states: “The most worrisome thing is that the UK continues to deny its role as the principal protagonist in the Zimbabwean issue and is persisting with its activities to isolate Zimbabwe.” Britain harbours a “death wish” against the Mugabe government, it says.

Defending his policy of farm seizures, draconian price controls and nationalisation of foreign-owned companies this week, Mr Mugabe rehearsed the theme. “If indeed we are a sovereign independent nation, we see no reason whatever why our empowerment programmes should encounter undeserved opposition as comes from Britain regularly,” he said.

“Economic saboteurs do not have a place in Zimbabwe. Let us continue to defend Zimbabwe from internal and external forces seeking to reverse the gains we have so far registered. Let Zimbabwe be an impenetrable fortress.”

Britain denies trying to overthrow Mr Mugabe, although successive governments have made no secret of their hope to see new leadership in Harare. But while Mr Mugabe’s position, objectionable as it is, is well known in London, Mr Mbeki’s buck-passing and apparent resort to anti-colonialist arguments will cause particular alarm in Washington.

The US has until now accepted South Africa’s contention that “quiet diplomacy” is the way forward with Zimbabwe. Mr Mbeki’s failure to deliver is now being set alongside a series of other foreign policy positions adopted by the African National Congress-led government that run contrary to wider US and western interests.

According to the New Republic magazine’s James Kirchick, these include recent, friendly contacts between South Africa’s intelligence minister and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader; South Africa’s public support for Iran’s nuclear programme; its defence of Sudan and Burma against proposed UN sanctions; and its siding with Russia and China and on these and other issues.

“The roots of the ANC’s willingness to overlook totalitarianism go back to its historic hostility to the west, which solidified during the apartheid years, when it was the Soviet Union that supplied the ANC and the US, Britain and Israel were unwilling to cut ties to the white government in Pretoria,” Mr Kirchick argued in the Los Angeles Times.

Mr Mbeki and colleagues were the willing heirs to an “anti-imperialist intellectual tradition heroically opposed to the western democracies,” he said. South Africa was squandering its post-apartheid moral authority and “slowly moving into the anti-western camp”. In another neck of the geopolitical woods, western intelligence agencies fret privately about South Africa’s alleged reluctance to help track Islamist extremists and suspect funds.

According to one regional analyst, such hostile outside assessments typically fail to appreciate the driving force in sub-Saharan politics: the rightful insistence on African sovereignty, dignity and autonomy that trumped all other considerations, was jealously defended, and which Mr Mugabe has so shamelessly exploited.

All the same, this week’s expected repeat failure by regional leaders to tackle Zimbabwe’s crisis, coupled with South Africa’s apparent estrangement, will increase talk of rasher remedies. Quoting recent appeals by Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo for British military intervention to topple Mr Mugabe, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby said this week it was time to act.

“Countless lives could be saved and incalculable suffering ended if Mr Mugabe were forced from power,” he said. “A detachment of US marines could do the job on its lunch break.”