Robert Mugabe came to power as president of Zimbabwe in 1987. Next year, if Southern Africa’s Methuselah lives until then, will mark his thirtieth year in office and what has become a pathetic downward spiral into the abuse of state power and the obliteration of his nation’s fortunes. President Mugabe is famed as having said of slavery and colonialism’s abuses, “Was it not enough punishment and suffering in history that we were uprooted and made helpless slaves, not only in new colonial outposts, but also domestically.”
Ironically, a poor Zimbabwean in Tshwane recently told me: “We are going home to Zim these days… the Rand is so weak that we cannot send it home for Dollars … it is better to earn R200 per day working for the Chinese on a diamond mine”. These are Mugabe’s children. His slaves. Desperate peasants scattered across our country like unwanted orphans, too polite and well-spoken to heckle their schoolmaster. Mugabe has become the greatest slave-maker in his nation’s history by colonising for personal gain the highest institution of public office. Instead of public service, his legacy will be the servitude of millions of Zimbabweans as they dream of rebuilding the wasteland left in the wake of Mugabe’s policy suicide.
South Africa cannot afford a war in Zimbabwe
By some estimates there are up to two million Zimbabweans in South Africa. This means that, while Europe laments its “migrant crisis”, South Africa is in fact in the throes of a gargantuan refugee crisis of our own. When one considers the burgeoning poverty in our townships and the simmering xenophobia which occasionally pushes the lid off our own social disparities, another few million Zimbabweans fleeing a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe would be disastrous.
The time to act is now.
We learned through the Arab Spring that the removal of a dictator leaves a power vacuum quickly filled with the worst of what society has to offer. Under the veil of Mugabe’s rule lurks a frustrated and underpaid army, a militarised police force and a patronage network to rival Angola’s under dos Santos. What happens if you remove Robert Mugabe is not a miraculous national congregation uniting to sing Kumbaya my Lord. No, remove the dictator and you have a power struggle, faction against faction, to the death, for the scarce resources that remain and for a place at the table.
The media is largely intimidated and beaten into silence.
Academics are either abroad or sing for their lunch.
The faith-based communities practice spiritual hermitage while the country starves.
Civil society is all but crushed by thugs brandishing state-sponsored shields and batons that beat activists’ last breaths of courage into submission.
Where are human rights Mr Mugabe?
Where is dignity? Where is hope? Where is the liberation of your people?
Mugabe’s mismanagement of power has created a power vacuum that will revive tribal and sectarian resentments and only lead to bloodshed.
The reason to act is justice; the path, transitional justice
Zimbabwe needs a dramatic and decisive intervention to avoid a total collapse and anarchy. This is not a task any South African politician or diplomat would want, but it is a task that is both in our interest as a nation and a moral imperative. Unless Zimbabwe has a government of national unity – forged now in the dying months of Mugabe’s reign – to tide it over into a normalised democratic process the consequences will be severe and the damage take decades to undo.
What complicates matters is that Zimbabwe will needs an urgent economic rescue package to maintain the integrity of its government institutions, the courts and billions of dollars in investment to restart the base industries that vanished over the last two decades. Zimbabweans will need to be given the opportunity to dream again of a constitutional order; the rule of law and not of fear; the right and freedom to vote freely and according to their own convictions. This will necessitate that platforms be created, both in media and in real terms, for emerging leaders to develop constituencies now that a generation of alternatives to Mugabe have been systematically vilified, oppressed and exiled. This will be a tedious process requiring a strong caretaker role by the international community and Zimbabwe’s SADC neighbours in particular. Sure, everyone in the regional neighbourhood has their own challenges but left unchecked, a failed state in Zimbabwe will draw the entire region into a protracted era of volatility. The police service needs to be demilitarised and an opportunity created for the crimes committed against citizens to be acknowledged and for both restorative justice and punitive justice to take its course.
There is a limited opportunity for leadership on the issue of Zimbabwe after Mugabe. Pulling Zimbabwe away from the brink of war will require statesmanship of the highest calibre. The longer we wait to act, the more difficult it will be.
Edmund Burke said of statesmanship, “a disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.” That is precisely what is required now in Zimbabwe. Alas, as for President Mugabe he has played his cards and the only path to statesmanship for him now, is death. My concern is instead for the 14-million Zimbabweans who pray for relief from his tyranny and what can be done to give them their country back in one piece.