The Future of South Africa

It is the 14th of February today - Mbeki said that talks were going to take place in the New Year - we are asking "which year?" I checked today with the leadership of the MDC - no talks are in prospect. Zanu leaders say the same thing. So what on earth is Mbeki talking about when he continues to insist that the two parties are talking and that formal talks are imminent? In recent days he has gone even beyond this and said that Mugabe has agreed to initiate talks, that an agenda is agreed and that much progress has been made in "informal talks".

Experienced journalists who heard Mbeki speak cannot believe that a senior political leader of his caliber and experience could make such a claim without there being any substance. Others have gone as far as to say, perhaps the talks are so secret that no one knows that they are in progress.

Let's get one thing straight - there are no talks. In fact the Secretary General of the MDC has used very undiplomatic language this week to emphasis this point. Remember that he is the leader of the team that the MDC appointed over a year ago to represent us in any talks with Zanu PF. If there is anyone who should know it is Welshman Ncube.

But remember we are dealing with a government in South Africa that despite its apparent sophistication and capacity is patently delusional on many issues. We have a Minister of Health who defends quack remedies that she claims are treatments for Aids. We have a President who denied that he had ever known anyone who had died of Aids in a country where 5 million people have the disease and thousands are dying every week. We have a Foreign Minister who defends Mugabe and claims that Supreme Court decisions that close down independent newspapers and denies many journalists the right to work are both legal and defensible.

Now we have a State President - probably the most important personage holding this position in Africa, who continues to say that talks are under way in Zimbabwe and that he is confident that the problems here will be resolved soon. It is too bizarre to believe, but it is true.

When confronted with the Zimbabwe issue, South African government spokespersons - such as the hapless Khumalo, simply parrot what the State President has said. Mbeki himself is frequently defensive on the issue and attacks journalists and opposition spokespersons in South Africa who dare to question his position on Zimbabwe. Clearly he is less than happy to be the point-man on Zimbabwe - but can he change this now, I think not.

I listened to the whole of the State of the Nation address by Mbeki in the South African Parliament. It was an impressive speech in many respects, but again the blind spots - no mention of the regional crisis and no mention of Aids except in a minor way. He gave a very adequate summary of the miracle that South Africa is after 40 years of apartheid and 10 years of democracy. Despite his antipathy towards President Mandela he was careful to quote extensively from the Mandela speech to the SA Parliament 10 years before. In many ways who could have expected that South Africa would survive the transition process and come out even looking like a State! But it has and in no small measure this must be attributed to the leadership of the ANC.

But they did not do it alone. In 1989, it was the then Prime Minister of Britain, Margaret Thatcher, who was the "point man" on South Africa. It was the lady of steel who had been tasked of seeing that fundamental change was wrought in South Africa after all those years of protest, armed conflict and suppression. She carefully built a coalition in the West and persuaded other African leaders that the western "Regime Changers" were sincere. She used all the muscle that the UK had as an international money center to put pressure on the then South African government.

Lets remember that the old regime in South Africa was battered but not out by any means. There was no significant military threat and their economy was working well for their own people. The Nationalists knew full well that any concessions to the ANC would spell the end of their power, open up the possibility (probability) of personal prosecutions and imprisonment. To enter into talks was to capitulate. Margaret Thatcher simply made it impossible for the Nationalists to do anything else. It was a superb example of the use of power by a modern State. It gave birth to the Rainbow Nation.

In Zimbabwe there are many parallels with the situation in South Africa in 1989. We have a government that has violated all the things that the ANC has stood for for 85 years - justice, equality before the law, freedom of speech and association, basic human and political rights for all. We have a regime that is battered but not out by any means but has to go if freedom and justice are to be re-established. The President of South Africa is the "point man" because he has the historical and regional interests at stake and has the necessary power to effect change and to force the belligerent parties to the negotiating table. Talks leading to negotiations are the only way out unless we go back to war.

So what is wrong? Simply put, Mbeki is no Thatcher or Mandela and we are stuck with him in the wrong position at the wrong time. We had hoped that the massive pressure on him to deliver would effect the changes needed to get action - it looks as if we are to be disappointed.

It may look as if this is all about Zimbabwe, but it is not. We are insignificant in the whole picture. Our GDP is now about 3 per cent of the GDP of South Africa and we have little or no international significance. But if we do not fix the Zimbabwe problem, then I am afraid for the long-term future and stability of South Africa itself and that is a matter of global importance.

South Africa needs an economy, which will grow at least at 5 per cent per annum - preferably 6 or 7 per cent. That is not going to happen if the Zimbabwe problem is not fixed. South Africa needs to diversify its economy and create jobs - for this she needs industrial growth and for this to really take off she needs the region and the continental markets. If the Zimbabwe contagion is not fixed, this effort will be frustrated. At the end of its first decade of normal political life, more South Africans are homeless and more are jobless than at the start. If you cannot start to roll those stats backwards, South Africa is in deep trouble.

The key to the future of South Africa is a peaceful, legal, democratic resolution of the Zimbabwe crisis. That is in the hands of President Mbeki tonight and I do not sleep well because of it.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo February 14 2004