Mugabe, Mbeki, and Mandela's Shadow

Mugabe, Mbeki, and Mandela's Shadow

Mini Teaser: Nelson Mandela's successor is providing vital help to the illiberal and undemocratic regime in Zimbabwe.

by Author(s): R.W. Johnson

One is also told that Mbeki, faced with radical opposition from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), is deeply aware that former President Kaunda of Zambia was ultimately toppled by a trade union-based opposition. If another African nationalist, this time a liberation leader next door, were to be toppled by a similar union-based movement like the MDC, this would enormously strengthen Cosatu's leverage and encourage it to float its own workers party. There is probably something to this. But it should be remembered that the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and Cosatu were close allies, which meant that Cosatu, along with South Africa's Communist Party, was warmly disposed toward Morgan Tsvangirai, the ZCTU leader. Had Mbeki embraced the MDC and opposed Mugabe at the outset he would have won plaudits from the South African Left. Even now Cosatu and the Communist Party are uncomfortable at finding themselves, as a result of their alliance with the ANC, on the opposite side from persecuted farm workers, organized urban labor and township food rioters in Zimbabwe.

The real key to this question is to remember that South African policy toward Mugabe would clearly have been very different if Mandela were still president. In other words, there is nothing intrinsic in African nationalism that necessitates Mbeki's attitude; both men are ANG leaders, but Mandela is clearly revolted by human rights abuses, while Mbeki clearly is not.

What is the central difference between the two men? Without doubt it is that Mandela preached racial reconciliation within "the rainbow nation" while Mbeki has preached the doctrine of "the two nations, one rich and white and the other black and poor." Over and over again he has played the race card against his domestic opposition, has insisted that South Africa's greatest problem is not AIDS, poverty or unemployment--but racism. The strategy is clear: Mbeki is insecure in power and the "two nations" tactic isolates the opposition and makes any black who supports it a race traitor. Provided he can maintain racial solidarity and racial blocs, the ANC is bound to win simply because elections then become a form of ethnic census, with Africans constituting 75 percent of the electorate. Given that the ANG is failing very badly and openly on its promises to provide "a better life for all", beating a retreat back to racial politics seems a safe recourse.

This, in turn, explains why Mbeki has not been discouraged even by Mugabe's multiple betrayals. For domestic reasons Mbeki has decided that he cannot be on the side of white farmers against a black liberation leader. Now that he has played the game that way, he has not only created a constituency within South Africa that would criticize him if he let Mugabe fail, he would now have to admit that he, the ANC's foreign policy and diplomatic expert, has misjudged disastrously over his first real foreign policy challenge.

The problem is not just that Mbeki has sacrificed the whole human rights tradition of the anti-apartheid struggle to support Mugabe, but that Mugabe must eventually fail. He is 76, is leading his country to negative 10 percent growth, he harbors as a friend the Ethiopian Pol Pot, Mengistu Haile Mariam, he is bankrupt, he is execrated by world opinion, and he knows there is no way back. Betting on him is betting on a certain loser.

Mbeki has been able to get away with this folly only because Western states want to stay on his side at all costs. Some are so desperate to do so that they are even willing to find reasons to excuse Mbeki's policy on AIDS. Thus, Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace writes that Mbeki's stance on AIDS is "not an act of personal madness or deep ignorance" but "an act of frustration, a response to an international community that demands too much, offers too little and does not spare the criticism." In practice, Mbeki's refusal to allow HIV-positive pregnant mothers or rape victims access to anti-retroviral drugs (which the manufacturers have offered for free) is killing over 50,000 African babies a year. Those who actually care about those babies or about human rights or about Zimbabwe will, in the end, come up with a different answer.

R.W. Johnson is an emeritus fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and co-editor of Ironic Victory: Liberalism in Post-Liberation South Africa (Oxford University Press, 1998). In 2000 he carried out three major opinion surveys in Zimbabwe for the Helen Suzman Foundation, Johannesburg.

Essay Types: Essay