Skip to main content

A Growing Chorus In S. Africa Urges Action on Mugabe

Resource type: News

The Washington Post |

by Karin Brulliard and Colum Lynch

Kumi Naidoo joined the struggle against apartheid as a teenager, signing up with a movement that fought for human rights, delivered democracy to South Africa and now governs the country. Last week, he began a hunger strike to pressure that government to confront a different oppressor, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

“The bottom line is, the South African government has betrayed its record,” said Naidoo, honorary president of Civicus, an international alliance of civil society organizations.

His was one voice in a growing chorus of frustration in South Africa at the government’s failure to condemn Mugabe, even as Zimbabwe’s humanitarian crisis worsens, a cholera epidemic that began there spreads throughout South Africa, and the number of Zimbabweans seeking asylum here surges.

In recent weeks, the region’s Catholic bishops have called on South Africa to cut off support for Mugabe, and Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu has urged his ouster by force. Graca Machel, Nelson Mandela’s wife, said Wednesday that southern African leaders have “blood on their hands” for not stopping Zimbabwe’s crisis, while trade unions are demanding that leaders reject Mugabe. Newspapers feature scathing attacks on the stance of South Africa, whose leaders galvanized international support in their own fight against oppression.

“Our country’s stand makes me feel ashamed to be a South African,” one reader wrote to the Cape Times last month.

But as the 15-nation Southern African Development Community meets Monday in Pretoria to discuss the crisis in Zimbabwe, there is little sign that South Africa, the group’s chair and regional powerhouse, will call for an end to Mugabe’s 28-year rule or even criticize it.

Kgalema Motlanthe, South Africa’s interim president, has said that the best solution is the implementation of a power-sharing pact signed by the opposition and Mugabe, whose security forces have been accused of abducting and torturing activists while the rival parties haggle over details of the deal.

Critics say South Africa should openly condemn Mugabe, as Botswana’s government has done, or try to bring down his regime by cutting off supplies of electricity, fuel and food to Zimbabwe. Some have called for South Africa and other nations to refer Mugabe to the International Criminal Court, a move that a senior South African Foreign Ministry official, Ayanda Ntsaluba, recently said would be “counterproductive.”

“We don’t see this as assisting, and I don’t think we can expect South Africa to join this chorus in the near future,” he said, adding that South Africa’s approach is “guided by what holds promise for peace so that more lives can be saved.”

The continuation of South Africa’s “quiet diplomacy” toward Mugabe has disheartened those who had hoped for a firmer response after the ruling party ousted Thabo Mbeki, the policy’s architect, as president in September. But regional leaders kept Mbeki as mediator of Zimbabwe’s political crisis, despite the opposition’s protests.

Mark Gevisser, the author of the biography “Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred,” has attributed Mbeki’s insistence on negotiation in part to his deep distrust of the West and a sense of indebtedness to Mugabe, a patriarch in a “family of freedom fighters” who had backed the battle against apartheid.

But Mbeki’s brother and the deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs, Moeletsi Mbeki, said the policy belonged not just to Mbeki but also to South Africa’s liberation movement-turned-ruling party, the African National Congress, or ANC. Elitist party leaders view themselves and their counterparts in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, party as “superior to the black masses” that propelled Zimbabwe’s main opposition party to prominence, he said.

“They see the lower class as a threat to their power,” Moeletsi Mbeki said.

The approach extended to South Africa’s recently ended two-year term on the U.N. Security Council, where the country promoted African initiatives and positioned itself as a counterbalance to the council’s dominant Western powers, challenging U.S.-backed efforts to impose sanctions on Iran and condemn rights abuses by autocracies including Burma and Zimbabwe.

That enhanced its standing among members of the United Nations’ influential Third World blocs. But it has eroded its moral standing in the West.

“Given South Africa’s own history, one would have really hoped for more in terms of lining up on the side of those who are now victims of human rights abuses,” said Steve Crawshaw, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch.

South Africa’s U.N. ambassador, Dumisani Shadrack Kumalo, said critics have a “romantic view” of his government’s role as

a champion of human rights. He said his government has been defined by pragmatism.

“We sat across the table from people who were worse than Robert Mugabe,” Kumalo said, referring to the political settlement with the rulers of the apartheid regime. “The situation in Zimbabwe is terrible,” he said, but he added: “It won’t function if you just zero in on one guy.”

Still, South Africa’s policy could shift. The nation’s departure from the Security Council could open the door to stiffer action against Mugabe’s government, U.S. and European diplomats said, although Obama administration officials said it would be hard to rally support for tough measures from China and Russia without South Africa’s acquiescence.

Critics hope that consent will come if ANC leader Jacob Zuma becomes South Africa’s president in general elections this year, as expected. Zuma, who is strongly backed by the trade unions that support Zimbabwe’s opposition, has spoken more harshly of Mugabe, saying recently that he could no longer call Mugabe and his party “comrades.”

ANC spokesman Carl Niehaus said in an interview Sunday that Zuma, if elected, would apply “a more vocal condemnation” and “stronger diplomatic pressure” on Zimbabwe, while urging other southern African leaders to do the same. One senior ANC official said Zuma is also prepared to “turn the economic screws on Zimbabwe.”

In a recent interview, however, Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said he would expect “a difference in style but not in substance” under a Zuma presidency.

For their part, activists such as Naidoo said they think growing public outrage in South Africa could hold sway. Last week, he, Machel and other activists announced a “campaign of solidarity,” to include hunger strikes and protests.

About 2,000 mostly Zimbabwean migrants sleep on floors and in stairwells at the Central Methodist Mission, having fled a “huge human catastrophe” in their homeland, said Bishop Paul Verryn.

“Insofar as the South African government and the South African people owe a debt to Zimbabwe, and we do, it is not a debt to Robert Mugabe,” Naidoo said. “That is a debt we owe to the Zimbabwean people as a whole.”

Lynch reported from New York.

Related Resources


Human Rights & Reconciliation

Global Impact:

South Africa


Civicus, Human Rights Watch