It's Crunch Time

In any crisis there comes a moment when all the parties to a situation must face reality and make decisions. The crisis in Zimbabwe is at just such a juncture. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the country will be decided in the next few days.

We have just seen the failure of the G8 States to persuade their international colleagues to back tough sanctions on Zimbabwe. This was partly engineered by South Africa who rushed the commencement of talks about talks in South Africa so as to be able to say at the UN that 'talks' were under way and the Security Council should give the parties involved time to try and resolve the crisis along the lines agreed by the AU.

By doing so, Mbeki has in fact both played the ball back to the western States who backed the tough stance and also put himself in the situation where he has full responsibility for the next play - in fact the final set in this particular match. He may live to regret that particular outcome. James McGee said as much when he stated yesterday that 'it was now up to the SADC States' to find a solution.

Mbeki has come back from the G8 summit in a hurry to get things moving. He virtually forced the start of talks about talks last week and after two days of fruitless discussion, he set up a meeting of the SADC Organ on Politics and Security chaired by Angola, now scheduled to take place on the coming Friday. Ping (from the AU) fell ill in Japan and will himself only come to South Africa on Thursday for talks with Mbeki prior to the SADC meeting on Friday.

It seems to me that all those involved - from the international donors who are vital to any recovery process here, to the SADC and the AU and indeed even the G8 leadership, that all are singing from the same hymn sheet. The call is for a transitional government with a limited mandate and life (maximum of two years) with Mugabe as a titular President and Tsvangirai as a substantive Head of Government or Prime Minister. The power structure of the new government to be based on the outcome of the 29th March election.

It is envisaged by all that this transitional arrangement would last until a new national Constitution had been agreed, signed and implemented and fresh democratic elections held under normal conditions. It is further envisaged that during this period, a start would be made on the whole process of stabilisation and recovery.

Clearly, such a transitional arrangement is not acceptable to the new power brokers in the present regime. The Joint Operations Command made up of a military Junta with elements of the Zanu PF Party, know full well that this would represent the end of the road for them in every respect. If they were to accept such an outcome they would have to either go into exile or seek refuge in a country that agreed to have them and to provide them with security and protection from prosecution.

The Zanu PF negotiators know this and Mbeki is also fully aware of just what he is up against. He knows that neither Mugabe nor his JOC associates can be trusted to abide by any decisions reached at the negotiating table. Therefore, what is at stake here is not just the issue of negotiations themselves but also the future and security of the men (and women?) who have orchestrated Zimbabwe's freefall into collapse and international ostracism. The real talks are therefore likely to be between the facilitators and the JOC rather than between the Zimbabwean Political Parties.

The JOC have their own ideas - they want to keep to their present course. If left to their own devices they will dissolve Parliament and hold fresh elections in August or September, maintain or intensify the violence and the campaign against the MDC and even deepen the crisis here. They do not care about the economy - a small group of some 2 000 individuals can live very well on the mines alone thank you, or the human welfare of the millions of people who live in the cities and towns.

So we are down to the wire. For South Africa the issues are clear. As I write, millions of Zimbabweans are planning their flight to other countries. A lethal cocktail of circumstances here is driving this process - the violence and genocidal attacks on ordinary people across the country; the economic collapse that is making it impossible to live on a salary even if you have a job; and the almost complete absence of basic foods, even if you can afford them. I would say that right now the majority of those who live inside Zimbabwe have no choice but to consider flight - and South Africa will be the preferred destination.

This forced migration could become the largest mass movement of people in recent African history and all the signs are there that it is under way. Such a migration would tip South Africa into instability and chaos as the squatter camps resist the influx. Pictures of the South African police firing bullets and tear gas into crowds would appear on television screens across the globe. Investors and financial managers all over the world would downgrade South Africa as an investment destination and FIFA might pull the soccer World Cup. An exaggerated view, I do not think so anymore!

Inside the country we simply cannot take much more punishment and any further deterioration in the economic and humanitarian situation will create conditions from which it will take years to recover. Like an outbreak of armed resistance, the economic collapse that is now underway will make things that much worse very quickly - we have weeks not months left in this respect. Right now in Bulawayo we have 42 000 tonnes of food aid sitting in sealed warehouses - it cannot be released because the donors will not allow Zanu PF to control its distribution on a political basis. Tell me if that is not a crime against humanity.

The US and the UK were quite right in their analysis of the crisis in Zimbabwe as a threat to regional stability and peace. Mbeki knows that and partly because of his own actions, he now has to face the Zimbabwe crisis without western allies at his back. He is left with SADC and the AU.

That is where the Zimbabwe crisis belongs and the biggest test of the Mbeki Presidency is about to take place. Does African leadership have what it takes to make the tough decisions that time and history and geography places on their shoulders. If they do have what it takes (and all the signs are there that they do), then does Mbeki have the political courage to use his power as President of South Africa and a key player in the SADC region, to enforce compliance across the Limpopo? There is no confidence that he will do so, but we may yet be in for a surprise.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 15th July 2008