16 December 2008

What's wrong with power sharing in Zimbabwe?

Ever since the disputed results of the last Zimbabwean elections, South Africa and other countries have been trying to broker a power-sharing agreement between the major parties, ZANU-PF and the MDC. The impasse has been caused because ex-President Robert Mugabe refuses to become ex, and has become El Caudillo; Der Führer of Zimbabwe.

Why is it that the South African government, and other concerned countries in the region, think that the solution to the problems caused by this putsch is a power-sharing agreement between winners and losers of the election?

In one way, it can seem a very African solution to the problem. In the idealised African worldview of ubuntu, consensus is deemed better than competion. Politics should not be a zero-sum game, with winners and losers, but rather a win-win solution should be sought, in which everyone can be kept happy.

One of the best examples of this is South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994. Though the ANC won a majority in the election, it did not rule alone, but formed a government of national unity with its most bitter rivals, the National Party and the IFP. The Democratic Party, though it would have been welcome to join, preferred to stay out, partly because it had no sympathy with the African idea of consensus, and preferred to be self-consciously Western, and espouse confrontation to cooperation. It saw itself as the Opposition with a capital O, and saw its task as to Oppose everything the government did, good or bad.

Under National Party rule, South African government had been as authoritarian as that of Zimbabwe under Mugabe, yet the ANC still agreed to form a Government of National Unity with their former enemies, so why should a similar solution not work in Zimbabwe today?

The difference is that in the 1990s the National Party leaders were becoming increasingly aware that their policies had failed and were politically bankrupt. Though a former foreign minister, Eric Louw, had declared that they would fight to retain power till the blood rose to the horses' bits, his successor, Pik Botha, said he wasn't prepared to die to keep "whites only" signs in the lifts. Mugabe's mindset is far closer to that of Eric Louw than to that of Pik Botha. Under F.W. de Klerk the National Party thought it would be better to lose power than to destroy the country in trying to retain it. Mugabe's thinking is precisely the opposite.

The irony is that the ANC government in South Africa is not all that wedded to the African idea of consensus leadership and power sharing. The ANC conference at Polokwane a year ago was definitely a winner-takes-all affair.

A question that is often asked is what could the South African government do about the situation in Zimbabwe. And one answer is that it could do what the ANC, when it was in opposition, often asked other countries to do about the National Party regime in South Africa: at the very least, recognise the human rights abuses for what they are and denounce them as such. Instead, it instructed South African election observers in Zimbabwe to declare elections free and fair when they weren't.[1]

At the government level, those who have been most vigorous in denouncing human rights abuses in Zimbabwe have been western countries, like the US and the UK. Mugabe has dismissed such criticisms as imperialist fabrications. He would not be able to dismiss such criticisms so easily if they came from neighbouring countries in Africa, but it is those countries that have been reluctant to criticise except in the mildest possible way.

The fact is that the longer Mugabe stays in power, the less there will be to salvage from the wreckage when he finally does go.

[1] On 1 March 2004 the South African Council of Churches arranged a meeting of South African church leaders to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe. Three church leaders from Zimbabwe gave a briefing on what was happening in that country. The questions they were asked were all to the point as was the discussion that followed. Among those who attended the meeting were some who had been observers at the previous elections in Zimbabwe, and they said that with hindsight they regretted that they had been persuaded, against their better judgement, to sign a statement declaring that those elections were free and fair.

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