Crunch Time

Every one can remember what they were doing the night Kennedy was shot - it is quite extraordinary how these seminal events imprint themselves on our minds. I was in Gokwe - a remote village on a volcanic plateau on the edge of the Zambezi escarpment. It was a clear night and we heard an earth tremor deep under our feet - a sound not unlike a train - caused by the weight of water filling up the Kariba basin some 130 kilometers away. As we walked, we mused about the implications of the news we had just heard.

Another time that has similar resonance with me was the day Ian Smith accepted majority rule. It was September the 23rd 1976. We had seen Smith and a group of his most senior Ministers go to Pretoria to see the South African President and the American Secretary of State. We did not know what to expect as an outcome. What we did know was that we were living in a country that was in deep trouble. The war was reaching new heights - we were all spending half our time in the bush in uniform and the economy was crumbling.

When we heard that the Prime Minister was to address the Nation, a few University friends and I gathered at a nearby home and watched his address with bated breath. Smith was not given to duplicity in any form; in fact his basic integrity was one of the things that kept him where he was for so long. He did not mince his words; he had seen the two men in Pretoria and had been presented with a deal he could not refuse. He had accepted that majority rule would be adopted as the basis for a new dispensation. We roared with approval - we were all deeply committed to the country and wanted to see real change - we knew that what was happening was not sustainable. I still think that the intervention by those two leaders in Pretoria that weekend saved this country from itself.

Smith remained Prime Minister and in leadership for another three years, but he was yesterday's man - others would inevitably take his place. The elections came in 1980, were held on the basis of universal suffrage and Mugabe became our first black Prime Minister.

We are at a similar point in our history. Mr. Mugabe has been in power for 27 years. He has proved to be an inept manager of our economy, has allowed the country to slide into a morass that now threatens to turn us into another African 'failed State'. A third of our population has fled as economic and political refugees and the quality of life of those who remain here has collapsed. Life expectancy is the lowest in the world and our population - once one of the fastest growing in the world, continues to decline under the weight of higher adult and infant mortality and the continued flight of people to other countries.

Faced with a decision by Mr. Mugabe to not only extend his tenure to 2010, but then to stand again as President, at the age of 86 for another term of 6 years, the local, regional and international communities suddenly started to pay new attention to what the prospect would be of such a scenario. Mr. Mbeki looked at the situation and was shocked - two more years of mayhem in Zimbabwe, another 1 or 2 million refugees in South Africa and then a controversial and disputed election in May/June 2010 - just as the World Cup reaches its peak in South Africa. His conclusion - no way could that be allowed to happen.

Opposition leaders were equally galvanized into action. Divisions brushed aside and a new unity of purpose became evident. Mugabe had to be stopped; we simply could not envisage another 8 years of this ongoing nightmare. Inside Zanu PF there were the beginnings of a consensus that the Mugabe proposal had to be stopped. Another constituency, over which none of us have any say or real influence - the economy also voted on the issue. Plunging the country into a fresh fiscal and monetary crisis that has seen inflation soar to over 3000 per cent in recent weeks with all the associated elements of collapse that this engenders.

A new coalition of forces opposed to Mugabe's plans emerged and has proved very powerful. Yesterday the US Congress debated the Zimbabwe crisis and voted to pressure SADC leaders to step up to the plate. On Saturday regional leaders met in Tanzania and this was followed by the call for an emergency summit of all 14 SADC leaders to take place today and tomorrow. That is unprecedented.

Mugabe will attend a Zanu PF Politburo meeting today and then fly to Tanzania to face the music. In the Politburo he will face his internal opponents who have been working towards this show down for some months now. They will demand he step down at the end of his current term in March 2008. When he comes back from Tanzania on Thursday he will then have to face his final test in the form of the Central Committee of Zanu PF where his fate will finally be decided.

If, as I expect, he will be forced to accept that his term in office will end in March 2008, after Friday he will be yesterday's man - power will recede from his position and he will be forced, like Smith, to caretaker the post of President until elections usher in a new leadership. The loss of such power will change many things here, the thugs who have been carrying out his instructions will suddenly find themselves facing opposition from the regular forces who will start to do their jobs properly, the corrupt and worse will seek cover and disguise or simply fade away.

Ahead of us will be the task to get the State under control and stop inflation, get the humanitarian situation under management and restore the rule of law. We also have to prepare the ground for fresh elections that will then take us forward and restore us as a respected, if battered, member of the international community.

But for the SADC Leadership and for Robert Gabriel Mugabe, today is crunch time. It may be early, could even be premature, in fact I have done this before - but I am going to put that bottle of champagne on ice!

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 28th March 2007