Johannesburg — THE national pastime during recent weeks has been to criticise, and even humiliate, President Thabo Mbeki. Nowhere has this been more evident that in the opinion articles and editorials on Zimbabwe. Next to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Mbeki has been the most denigrated leader.
However, is this not going over the top? And does it not mask a more disturbing feature of these Zimbabwean reflections?
Before I am accused of protecting the president, let me hasten to say I am not motivated by some innate desire to defend the image of the office of the president. Democracies, I believe, can only be bolstered when they are willing to subject their first citizen to rigorous scrutiny and robust criticism.
Neither am I concerned that he is being treated unfairly. After all, Mbeki has on many occasions used his position to unfairly target critics. Receiving similar treatment from others may actually do him some good.
My concern with this pillorying of Mbeki, rather, is that it may mask laziness in our national reflections on Zimbabwe and what SA should do. I am struck by the poverty of analysis in our reflections on Zimbabwe. Commentators such as Christopher Hitchens have avoided the fundamental issues, offering instead vague unsubstantiated speculation on why Mugabe behaves the way he does.
Others, mainly South African academics and journalists, have preferred to turn their attention to Mbeki, mocking his appeasement of Mugabe and describing it as a national humiliation. But none of this analysis has offered a realistic alternative to Mbeki's strategy.
Worse, most don't even address the issue, suggesting that these commentators prefer the lazy path of verbal denunciation without sufficiently reflecting on the more difficult task of determining viable, realistic solutions.
Let me summarise the fundamental dilemma of Zimbabwe. It is no great feat of analysis to come to the conclusion that Mugabe is a thug, who needs to be replaced. Most sensible observers, including those close to the president (and I suspect Mbeki himself) know this. The problem is how to unseat Mugabe or facilitate his departure from the political scene. And this is no small problem.
Authoritarian leaders, especially wily ones such as Mugabe, can delay their departure for years, with devastating consequences for their country. Remember Sani Abacha, who not only delayed Nigeria's democratisation, but also killed many activists, citizens and leaders before his own death from a sudden heart attack?
How, then, can SA assist in getting rid of Mugabe? Four very different strategies have been proposed by various stakeholders. The most outlandish has been the suggestion SA should consider invading Zimbabwe, preferably in partnership with the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
The problem with this strategy is obvious. It assumes SA is militarily much stronger than Zimbabwe. But many military observers would contest this, suggesting that the South African military is too ill-prepared to undertake such a daunting mission.
Moreover, it is highly unlikely democracy will prevail through the barrel of a gun. The most likely scenario, la Iraq, is that Zimbabwe will descend into civil war.
A more respectable mainstream option is that of sanctions. Extreme interpretations of this recommend a stringent sanctions regime involving closure of SA's borders and the termination of its electricity supplies, while more moderate recommendations, such as those in the International Herald Tribune, focus on travel and commercial curbs targeted at Mugabe and his cabinet colleagues.
Neither is very realistic. The former will aggravate the socio-economic crisis of Zimbabwe, impose more hardships on its poorest citizens, and increase refugee flows to Botswana and SA. The latter will mainly have symbolic value and is unlikely to unseat Mugabe in the short term. More ominously, it runs the danger of making Mugabe even more belligerent and reducing SA's limited leverage in constraining Mugabe and realising a mediated solution.
This is also the problem with the third strategy suggested. Many nongovernmental organisations and human rights groups would simply like SA's government to publicly criticise Mugabe for his undemocratic behaviour. They see this as a matter of political principle. Again, while admirable and of symbolic value, it does little in the short term to get rid of Mugabe. Indeed, as indicated earlier, it runs the risk of subverting the possibility of realising a mediated solution to Zimbabwe's dilemma.
This, then, takes us to the final option, namely Mbeki's mediation strategy. Critics remark the strategy has not yielded any fruits. But this is just not true. Many reforms in the recent elections that led to the relative transparency, which was responsible for producing the victory of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition, arose out of Mbeki's mediation efforts.
Even MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai acknowledged as much in an interview soon after the elections. Mediation, it must be said, is what produced the first Zanu (PF) defeat since independence.
Yet acknowledging that mediation is the only game in town need not entail endorsing Mbeki's entire behaviour. His conduct is not beyond question, especially in the weeks that followed the elections. There is no doubt that Mbeki crossed the line between independence and appeasement when he not only remained silent when the Zimbabwean Election Commission refused to announce the results timeously, but also had the temerity to affectionately embrace Mugabe in the full glare of the world's media.
Instead of appeasing Mugabe, he could have phrased a rebuke in general terms, expressing disquiet about the delay in the announcement of the election results, as SA's government did eventually do.
Mbeki's failure to do this undermined his own mediation capacity by compromising his credibility with the MDC, whose leaders have recently called for his replacement as SADC mediator.
The erosion of Mbeki's legitimacy, however, does not undermine the viability of the mediation strategy itself. Rather, it merely underscores the necessity of political management and the importance of respecting the boundary between independence and appeasement.
Now that the presidential election results have been announced and a second-round election has been called, two scenarios are possible. First, the MDC could participate in the second round but insist that conditions are created for "free and fair" elections. Second, a negotiated resolution could be realised, as suggested by both Gwede Mantashe of the African National Congress and Simba Makoni, the former Zanu (PF) finance minister and losing presidential candidate, who holds the balance of power.
Either way a mediator is going to be required to facilitate these outcomes. And the only person capable of getting through Mugabe's front door in this regard is Mbeki.
One final remark is warranted. The reason that Zimbabwe is in its present mess is because pragmatism prevailed over justice at the dawn of its independence. The land question was sacrificed so as not to rock the political boat.
Yet the consequence of that decision manifested itself in the new millennium, when the autocratic Mugabe manipulated the issue to stay in power.
This is a lesson that must be learnt. Justice must not be sacrificed for short-term political gain, for it will ultimately come to haunt prospects for sustainable democratisation and development.
Habib is Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Advancement at the University of Johannesburg.