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SADC Mediation Effort Has Little Impact

Analysts dismiss the South African president’s claim of significant progress in negotiations to break Zimbabwe’s political deadlock.
By Norman Chitapi
The Southern African Development Community, SADC, last week lived up to its reputation for dealing with Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe with kid gloves.

Leaders of the SADC, an inter-government body uniting 14 southern African countries, met in the Zambian capital Lusaka on August 16-17 to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe.

Analysts said while they did not expect SADC heads of state to abandon South African president Thabo Mbeki’s trademark policy of quiet diplomacy on Zimbabwe, they had at the very least hoped for some tough talk about the deteriorating economic situation there.

In March, SADC leaders tasked Mbeki with leading a process of mediation to achieve a political accommodation between the ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, to resolve the country’s eight-year political and economic crisis.

In the negotiations, the MDC is demanding a new constitution, electoral law reforms and the right to vote for all Zimbabweans in the diaspora, as well as an end to political violence and repression before joint presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for next year

President Mbeki insisted at the onset of his mediation effort that he did not want media publicity to derail the talks or set their agenda.

Although Mbeki reported significant “progress” in his presentation to the SADC summit in Zambia, analysts say there has been little change.

In March, SADC leaders also mandated its executive secretary Tomaz Salomao to study the state of the Zimbabwean economy and recommend possible solutions.

Last week, Salomao reported that the economic crisis in Zimbabwe was a product of western sanctions rather than President Mugabe’s policies. These have included a controversial land reform programme in 2000, in which farms were seized from white farmers and given to poor black farmers as well as to the president’s cronies and party supporters.

A western diplomat in the capital Harare said “these two gentlemen [Mbeki and Salomao] have been a big let-down”.

“Mbeki has succeeded in convincing everyone that his quiet diplomacy is the way to go, although nothing tangible has come out of it over the years. People at least expected some limited variation to the usual solidarity message and back-patting that African leaders have become infamous for,” he said.

The diplomat said that instead of encouraging Mugabe to reform, the SADC summit has provided him with no incentive to abandon his policies. Blaming western sanctions for Zimbabwe’s economic crisis lets him off the hook, as he can claim he is a victim of foreign machinations.

He said that Salomao should have left politics to the politicians, but that “instead, he is repeating the government mantra that foreign sanctions are to blame for Zimbabwe’s parlous state”.

“This is deplorable and regrettable. We need some straight talking if political leaders are to change their ways. If everyone begins to sing their propaganda tune, then we are lost,” he said. “Now Mugabe can go to his regional colleagues and tell them, ‘This is what we have been telling you. America and Britain are punishing us for taking our land’.”

A senior official in the MDC said that while the party was keen to participate in the Mbeki talks, the whole process was fast losing credibility.

“We are engaged in a process in which we are unable to influence the course of events,” said the official, who refused to be named. “Some of our key demands like a new constitution are dismissed outright, yet we are expected to keep negotiating. We really don’t know what President Mbeki means by progress, because so far there haven’t been talks to talk about.”

The MDC official said SADC leaders still clearly favoured President Mugabe and ZANU-PF. The region is largely ruled by first-generation liberation movements suspicious of new actors in the political arena, which they often accuse of acting as fronts for western interests, he said.

“Although they talk in hushed tones about the need for change in Zimbabwe, none of them openly expresses solidarity with those fighting for that change,” he said. “It is as if those opposed to Mugabe are engaged in illegal activities.”

Andrew Kudakwashe, an analyst and historian who has been following the mediation process, said SADC leaders appeared more comfortable with the prospect of a reformed ZANU-PF without Mugabe than with a complete change of party - which could have a “domino effect” in the region.

“Nobody among the SADC leaders was comfortable with the sudden change which took place in Zambia when Kenneth Kaunda was humiliated by a little known trade union leader called [Frederick] Chiluba in 1991,” he said.

“They would rather have gradual change fostered from within the ruling party. It is a process they feel they can control and manipulate, rather than a radical transformation of the political status quo.”

But another diplomat said it was not all smooth sailing ahead for the government in Zimbabwe. While condemning Salomao’s “hopeless” diagnosis of the causes of the Zimbabwe crisis, he said that SADC’s proposed rescue package would come with tough conditions.

He noted that none of the reports by Mbeki and Salomao had been formerly adopted at the summit because there was no consensus on what needed to be done, or on the true cause of the crisis.

“Salomao probably reported what he presumed the leaders wanted to hear,” he said, “but there were clear calls for political change in Zimbabwe, and aid won’t come cheap. That message must have been made clear to Mugabe and his ministers, despite attempts to save face.”

President Mugabe told reporters back home that the summit in Zambia had gone well and that his government would proceed with its economic strategies. Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who is leading the government team in the talks, was dismissive of the dialogue, saying there was nothing to negotiate with the MDC.

“What does Mugabe mean when he says ‘we will continue in accordance with our own programmes to turn around the economy’, when the economy has been on a rollercoaster for almost 10 years?” the diplomat asked.

Analysts suggest that ZANU-PF can afford to be dismissive of the talks, as divisions which have weakened the MDC since it split in 2005 over participation in senate elections means it poses less of a threat.

“The MDC will need to demonstrate that its cause is clear and that it is united before SADC leaders can act decisively,” said the western diplomat.

“People like Thabo Mbeki who have been reluctant to criticise Mugabe don’t want to be seen to be pushing opposition politics. The MDC must demonstrate that it has an agenda of its own which SADC leaders can support without being accused of pushing regime-change politics.”

Norman Chitapi is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.

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