By Conor Godfrey
Just as American and European governments have asked friends and allies to follow their lead in years past on issues of concern to the West, South Africa is now asking for the West to follow its lead on an issue near and dear to their hearts—Zimbabwe.
I find it hard to get a bead on affairs in Zimbabwe because the pendulum swings from disaster, to optimism, to nagging pessimism, and back faster than you can minimize Al-Jazeera and open up the BBC.
Two years ago, the country had a raging cholera epidemic, 230 million percent inflation, and risked becoming a failed state.
The power sharing agreement signed in 2008 pleased no one but stopped the country’s descent into chaos and offered a refreshing break from the monotony of Robert Mugabe’s 30 year reign.
Then the news turned bad again. Snags in the rather loathsome shotgun wedding between Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC threatened to derail progress.
But last week the news was good. Jacob Zuma’s shuttle diplomacy appeared to have finally paid off.
Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African ZANU-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) agreed to implement a series of measures to break through the current diplomatic impasse. (Outstanding issues include unresolved disputes over gubernatorial appointees, sanctions, and the swearing in of MDC Agricultural Minister Roy Bennett)
This week the news is bad.
A member of ZANU-PF told the press that his party would not take the agreed steps until Western governments remove sanctions (mostly travel restrictions and an asset freeze on Mugabe and his top officials).
In recent days, this official claimed that he only reiterated the party’s past position, but it certainly seems that ZANU-PF will continue to play the part of the obstructionist.
This is maddening. Robert Mugabe is largely responsible for Zimbabwe’s current state of affairs.
His thugs intimidate opposition members, his policies deter investment, and his mere presence makes potential foreign donors think twice about getting involved.
Lifting sanctions on Mugabe and his family would taste awful, but pragmatism often does.
I realize that the withdrawal of protest-sanctions lends quasi-legitimacy to an obstructionist regime, seems like playing politics with human rights, and undermines the Western claim to “always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity”. (President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union)
It’s a distasteful business.
However, Western governments lack adequate leverage to follow another course.
South Africa on the other hand has both vested interests and powerful leverage.
Zimbabwe is an important exporter to South Africa as well as the biggest buyer of South African exports in the Southern African Development Community.
Furthermore, conflict, epidemics, and refugees do not respect state borders. For these reasons, South Africa would like its Northern neighbor to return to stability and prosperity as soon as possible.
If Jacob Zuma says that sanctions should be lifted, we should lift them.
If the U.S. and U.k. governments need to hold their nose while doing so to appease their domestic audience, so be it.
But they should get out of South Africa’s way.
This suggestion is open to the criticism that South Africa has yet to deliver. But neither have Western sanctions.
As the region’s economic and political powerhouse, South Africa has far more at stake than we do. The U.K and the U.S. should encourage the growth of South Africa as a regional power broker by trusting its government to act responsibly in the interest of stability and growth in Southern Africa.