The Reign of Thuggery


On a clear spring afternoon in Harare in mid-May, South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, paid a call on Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s beleaguered dictator, six weeks after Zimbabwe’s tumultuous elections on March 29 in which opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai claimed a clear victory over Mugabe. Mbeki had been largely silent as Zimbabwe descended into chaos. In mid-April, while Mugabe’s handpicked Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) refused to release the final vote count, and Mugabe’s War Veterans marched through the streets in an intimidating display of force, Mbeki had stood hand in hand with Mugabe outside the presidential residence in Harare and denied that the country was in “crisis.”

In recent days, however, as evidence grew of widespread beatings and killings of supporters of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mbeki had found himself under attack in the press and at odds with members of his own party leadership. Jacob Zuma, the chairman of the African National Congress and Mbeki’s likely successor to the presidency of South Africa, had criticized the delayed vote count and said that an April raid on MDC headquarters made the country look like “a police state.” The Johannesburg newspaper Business Day revealed that Mbeki had several years earlier ignored a report by two South African judges describing widespread cheating by Mugabe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU- PF), in the 2002 parliamentary election. Now, with the electoral commission’s official results showing that Tsvangirai had defeated Mugabe by 47.9 percent to 42.3 percent—necessitating a runoff election—Mbeki faced mounting pressure to support a free and fair second round.

And yet, when Mbeki stepped off the plane on May 9, it appeared to be business as usual—smiles, embraces, and hand-in-hand stroll across the tarmac. At their State House meeting, according to those close to the proceedings, Mbeki gently prodded Mugabe to declare an early date for the runoff. Then he suggested, diplomatically, that Mugabe should find a way to end the violence. It didn’t matter who had instigated it, Mbeki said. Mugabe controlled the police and the army, and they could stop it.

Mugabe told Mbeki that the situation was under control, and that Zimbabwe’s own laws would deal with it. The tone of the meeting was “chilly,” I was told by one close observer; but Mbeki made no demands, and left without receiving any commitments. Since then, Mbeki has kept his distance from Mugabe. “It appears that he’s washed his hands of the whole thing,” the source said.

Mbeki’s inaction is hardly surprising. Since Mugabe initiated his catastrophic “land grab” in January 2000, turning over four thousand white-owned farms to putative veterans of Zimbabwe’s independence war and to cronies, the South African president has failed to address forthrightly both Zimbabwe’s subsequent economic collapse and Mugabe’s many human rights abuses. Clinging to an ineffectual policy of “quiet diplomacy,” Mbeki stood by as Mugabe accelerated his violent land reform program. He then said and did little as the dictator unleashed thugs to intimidate voters and stuffed…

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