Sunday, November 30, 2008

Zim: The Cholera Effect

After all the human effort, indeed, after all the summits and champagne-negotiations, the demonstrations and obscene violence, could it really be that regional leaders in Southern Africa have been jolted into a change of tone by a little, albeit, lethal creature?

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3,000 dead from cholera in Zim
Zim Cholera still spreading

It seems that this little parasite, the bacteria called Vibrio cholerae and the debilitating ailment that it causes has introduced the “Cholera Effect” into the seemingly intractable Zimbabwe problem. As my friend Teri put it recently, “we may have just gone one diarrhoea too far”.

Surely, the region can no longer pretend not to smell the odour coming from the land between Zambezi and the Limpopo.

The public health implications for the region mean that self-interest will require regional leaders to engage more actively beyond the dilly-dallying of recent times. When Zimbabweans screamed for help most regional leaders reacted as if they were hallucinations from outer space. They reacted like the polite son-in-law who upon finding himself alone with his mother-in-law in a confined space senses an unusual and unpleasant atmospheric change but nevertheless pretends nothing is amiss even though he knows very well that only one person could have caused it. And that he himself had not caused it but out of politeness, maintains a dignified silence.

But the Rubicon has now been crossed. Now that Vibrio cholerae has entered the scene, with its non-discriminatory effect, it has become imperative to do something about the grave situation in Zimbabwe.

The little creature is, of course, a symptom of a greater problem; a signification of the lacunae in the structure of governance in Zimbabwe; that Zimbabwe does not actually have an operative government that is capable and willing to provide social services to its people. Hospitals are closing, drugs are hard to come by, the sanitary architecture has broken down, schools are shutting down and food is scarce. There is no proper government that is able to provide the basic services and resources to the ordinary people.

Now, a couple of weeks after SADC issued a porous communiqué on November 9, 2008, the language seems to be changing. In the last week, there have been three key signals coming from South Africa that seem to indicate a seismic transformation in approach. For Mugabe and a Zanu PF regime that has been bleating about sanctions as the cause of all the problems in Zimbabwe, the first would have come as a very unpleasant surprise from South Africa’s new president.

First, South Africa decided to withhold from Zimbabwe a financial package of R300 million which it had promised in early November. That announcement had been celebrated in Harare, the government interpreting it as an indication of the seemingly perpetual entente cordiale between the two governments which was prominent during the reign of President Thabo Mbeki.

That South Africa has now decided to withhold that support is tantamount to imposing a mild form of sanctions against the Zimbabwe government. Friends do not take away with one hand what they have offered with another. What President Kgalema Mothlante has done is to offer a carrot with one hand hoping perhaps for better behaviour on the part of the recipient but taken away with another, itself an apparent stick with which to whip into line an errant friend that continues to run amok leaving ordinary people in the lurch. This has a great deal of significance, it being a public admonishment of the regime, behaviour which President Robert Mugabe has traditionally associated with the West, on whom he shifts all responsibility for the country’s ills.

The second was the loaded statement last weekend by President Motlanthe to the effect that Mugabe, Tsvangirai and Mutambara must be sworn in to enable them to start the business of forming an inclusive government. Never mind the legal accuracy or otherwise of the statement, it carries tremendous political weight in so far as the new administration in SA views the Zimbabwe regime. It says, quite simply, that SA does not, as yet, recognise Mugabe’s legitimacy. It suggests that the hurried swearing in of Mugabe after the Pyrrhic victory in the June 27 one-horse race of a presidential run-off was a political non-event.

Also notable were the words of South Africa’s Health Minister, who said recently when responding to questions about the cholera crisis in Zimbabwe that there was not yet a recognised government in that country. This appears to be reflective of the thinking within the new South African government, that Zimbabwe does not have a legitimate government capable of speaking on behalf of the people.

If this interpretation is correct then, surely, it represents a sea-change in South Africa’s approach toward Zimbabwe from the days of the Mbeki presidency. This must come as a devastating blow to Mugabe. He is very keen for his legitimacy to be recognised and respected especially by those he regards as regional allies and he would have been hurt very deeply by the new pronouncements from Pretoria.

Third, is the more recent statement by Botswana’s Foreign Minister Phandu Skelemani who suggested in a BBC interview that regional countries ought to “squeeze” the Zimbabwe government by closing their borders and completely isolating it. This is an ominous sign from a senior diplomat in the region, speaking as he does, for his government which for long has challenged the legitimacy of the Zimbabwe government.

The weight of Skelemani’s statements is more apparent when viewed against the background that they were made around the same time that Botswana’s President Ian Khama had just attended key meetings in South Africa. There is an implication here that President Khama must have got sufficient confidence from South Africa to speak in such tough tongues. Perhaps it’s a view that South Africa shares?

It shows that privately Sadc is as exasperated as are Zimbabweans with the ‘see-saw politics’ in Zimbabwe. It indicates that the region is frustrated at the failure of the politics of persuasion, signified by quiet diplomacy, which has so far failed to halt the unprecedented decline in Zimbabwe, a decline that now threatens the region’s health and safety.

The question now is whether and how Mugabe’s regime will react to these signals. There is every chance that with its fragile skin, the regime will feel insulted and provoked, especially by the conduct of Botswana, a neighbour that it traditionally regards as a military non-entity. Recently, when President Khama called for new elections in Zimbabwe, Patrick Chinamasa a senior Zanu PF official, called it “an act of extreme provocation”.

Later Botswana was accused of providing training bases for MDC militias, allegedly to destabilise Zimbabwe although no evidence has been given to substantiate the allegations. Botswana has also offered to provide political asylum to Morgan Tsvangirai should he need it. For a neighbouring country to offer sanctuary to the face of Zimbabwe’s struggle is a strong statement of condemnation.

Mugabe is, quite plainly, in a tight spot. Sadc did not give him the Carte Blanche to form a government of his own choice. It has to be an Inclusive Government and it cannot be so without Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara. There are also signs of change in regional leaders approach. It has been gradual, disappointing at first, but there are signs that the days of appeasement may be in the past. With Mbeki no longer a commanding force in the region, Mugabe must feel that friends are few and so far away now.

Then again, you can never underestimate the reaction of a cornered cobra.

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