That leader was Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. He was speaking in Harare, opening the Commonwealth meeting that would decide to begin lifting the people-to-people sanctions that had been imposed against South Africa.
“As you stand on Zimbabwean soil,” President Mugabe said, “only a stone’s throw away from South Africa, the world expects us to spare no effort in helping to achieve an outcome there which will bring comfort to the oppressed people of South Africa”.
It is now well past time that South Africa returned the favour. Quiet diplomacy is dead. One of Africa’s brightest hopes has turned into the continent’s most dismal failures. In an era in which our continent is meant to be embarking on an African Renaissance, Zimbabwe is both an obstacle and an embarrassment.
President Thabo Mbeki’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” in Zimbabwe has finally been denounced as a disaster by world leaders. The criticism has extended beyond muted signs of displeasure to condemnation.
Senior ANC leaders have urged Mr Mbeki to alter his stance, while MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has expressed a desire for South Africa to be replaced as mediator in the crisis.
It is worth examining what effects this policy, which has led Mr Mbeki to claim there is no electoral crisis in Zimbabwe, has had on the country.
Zimbabwe, once one of the healthiest economies in Africa, has been plunged into a crisis that worsens every day. Inflation stands at over 100,000 per cent, and is predicted to hit the 1.5 million per cent mark by the end of the year.
Its healthcare system has failed, with many children orphaned by an Aids crisis, which Mr Mbeki refuses to take seriously. Political violence, intimidation and corruption remain endemic. None of this has been ameliorated by South Africa’s diplomatic efforts.
This policy has resulted in strengthening Dr Mugabe’s regime and other countries’ desire to effectively address the plight of the Zimbabwean people.
By indulging Mugabe’s insistence that the criticisms levelled against him are part of a neo-colonial plot, President Mbeki has granted the man a legitimacy that he would not otherwise have.
It is never quite clear to anyone precisely what quiet diplomacy is meant to accomplish. Is it supposed to bring about a fresh round of elections — free and fair this time round? Is it meant to bring about a transfer of power to the MDC or within a “reformed” Zanu-PF? Is it meant to bring about some kind of government of national unity?
The ANC’s unswerving loyalty to its fellow liberation government has undermined any claim it might have wished to make as to the even-handedness of its approach. This, of course, reflects the ANC’s attitude towards political opposition more generally.
The tragedy has been that it is in the interest of all to stand firm in condemnation of the actions of the Zimbabwean government. It lacks the economic and military clout to seriously threaten its international critics.
There is everything to gain in pragmatic terms by supporting reform in a country that has demonstrated such economic potential, and a moral mandate to criticise Mugabe’s corrupt despotism.
A far better response would have been the more robust one. Standing up to the Zimbabwe government would have limited their ability to manoeuvre diplomatically and politically, making it harder for them to acquiesce in the current crisis.
Had South Africa been firmer from the outset in dealing with the regime and challenging its actions, it might have been able to limit the machinations of Zanu-PF and the generals now lining up to try and succeed Mugabe.
A tough stance that refused to indulge Mugabe’s delusions might not wake him up to reality, but his isolation would afford him less political protection than he currently has.
This is not to advocate a US-style hawkish diplomacy against Zimbabwe. That would be entirely inappropriate for the situation and the country, and would have a very dubious prospect of success.
Rather, to stand up to Zimbabwe would involve stronger words supported by resolute action, a refusal to indulge Mugabe’s fantasies, and joining the rest of the world in the sanctions they have placed on the regime.
The world currently awaits the results of this most contentious of Zimbabwean elections. A change of stance from President Mbeki might go miles in delivering a resolution. Let’s hope it’s not too late.
The South African government should tell Mugabe that the human rights abuses, police brutality, arbitrary arrests and beatings of opposition politicians have to stop. These actions should remind South Africans of the worst days of apartheid.