guest column:Alex T. Magaisa

This was in contradiction to the public criticism that mainly came from the Western countries.
However, this caused a strain in relations with the MDC, which insisted that it was not a puppet of the West as claimed by Mugabe and Zanu PF. Both of the major political players that Mbeki dealt with then, Mugabe and Tsvangirai are deceased but it’s not clear that Mbeki’s views on the Zimbabwean political parties have changed. Has Mbeki’s views on regime-change and the MDC changed with the passage of time? Does he relate with Mnangagwa and Chamisa differently from what was clearly a strong relationship with Mugabe? Does he have any more respect for Chamisa than he had for Tsvangirai?

Language of power

His most recent statements do not suggest a man who has changed in his approach towards Zimbabwe and its major political players. He is still talking the language of the political establishment, making it comfortable rather than questioning its wrongful behavour towards citizens. For example, he seems to have already formed a position that Chamisa must accept the decision of the Constitutional court on the presidential election. In framing it this way, Mbeki is merely repeating Zanu PF’s call and taking it for granted that political referees and processes are fair and command respect.

What this approach misses is that the Zimbabwean problem goes deeper than the court’s judgment. Ordinarily, the validity of the court’s judgment does not depend on Chamisa’s acceptance of it. It should not matter whether or not Chamisa accepts it. It is not just Chamisa who has rejected the outcome of the processes as led by ZEC and the Constitutional Court but the political, economic and social markets as well. If these markets had accepted the outcomes of the election and judicial process, Chamisa’s protestations would not have mattered at all.

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Zimbabwe would have moved on without him. But they have not and that is why Mbeki has been to Zimbabwe. His return to Zimbabwe is an acknowledgement that the process and outcome of an election is not just a legal matter. The courts do not have the power to resolve political questions.

Mbeki should be asking why these markets value Chamisa’s response more than the judgment itself; why they haven’t given much regard to the judgment. He should be asking why Chamisa is rejecting the judgment and why the regime is so desperate for Chamisa’s consent. They cannot trivialise Chamisa’s consent while at the same time demanding it. Only by going beyond the superfluous veil of the judgment will a mediator be able to identify the problems and offer lasting solutions.

But, of course, attempts to trivialise Chamisa’s consent are futile. They have already tried it with the political actors dialogue (Polad). Without the biggest opposition leader, Polad was a sham from the beginning. It has since proved to be no more than a group of enablers desperate to align with Mnangagwa and using attacks on Chamisa and the MDC Alliance to buy their way onto the gravy train. Polad was presented as an inclusive dialogue, but for Mnangagwa it is just a platform to trivialise and dilute his main rival, Chamisa. If Mbeki’s mediation efforts are intended to bring Chamisa into Polad he would simply be enabling Mnangagwa’s charade, not solving the problem.

His meeting with a gleeful group of Polad members might be seen as a courteous first effort to listen to everyone, but it shouldn’t take him too long to realise that it’s Mnangagwa’s pet project which won’t get him far. No serious interlocutor would spend more time with Polad. Indeed, Chamisa would lose credibility among his party’s followers if he reneged on his initial position and capitulated to tie to the Polad project. Even if they give it another name, it would still be foul. In any event, the very fact that there is desperate call to bring him into Polad via the backdoor suggests even its authors know it’s inadequate.

The heart of the matter

At the heart of the current crisis is the inability of Zimbabwe’s political system to produce electoral outcomes that enjoy the confidence and trust of all contestants. It is a political system that, for the past two decades, has failed to produce a democratically legitimate government. Although the dispute normally manifests over the outcome of elections, the real point of dispute is in the electoral process. It is not a one-off phenomenon but one that has been consistent over a period of time.

There was an opportunity to fix this, between 2009 and 2013, when the country was under an Inclusive Government following Mbeki’s mediation in 2008. That opportunity went begging thanks in large part to a hastily concocted agreement which left the bulk of power in the hands of Zanu PF and therefore impeded the changes that were needed. The MDC got a raw deal. It would be foolhardy to ignore the fact that the mediator of that poor deal was President Mbeki. The result is there were no meaningful reforms between 2009 and 2013, and it is no accident that the elections that year failed to produce an outcome with democratic legitimacy.

For a standard against which to measure Zimbabwe, Mbeki need look no further than the country he once led. Everyone who participates in an election generally accepts the outcome.

This is because political referees who run elections enjoy the confidence of all serious participants. It’s also because the judicial system works and enjoys the confidence of litigants. The military and police behave professionally and respect their constitutional boundaries. These political referees are trusted so that even if a party loses, they can accept the outcome knowing they have been given fair treatment and that they can always try another day. The situation in Zimbabwe, on the other hand, is distinctly different because political referees are captured by the ruling party. This capture of political referees impugns the legitimacy of processes over which they preside, be they political, electoral or judicial. It goes without saying that there can be no lasting solution unless this political capture of institutions is resolved. This is the essence of political reforms. Unless this is done, the next electoral process will produce the same disputed outcomes.

One of the advantages that Mbeki brings is that he comes from a country that has built strong and independent institutions. They are epitomised by a powerful, independent and competent judiciary which can rightly be regarded as one of the world leaders in its field. He, along with fellow South Africans, helped to build these institutions. When he was sacked by the political process in 2008, he duly accepted his fate and walked away. He set a precedent that in a twist of irony the instigator of his downfall and his successor, President Zuma, would follow a decade later.

By doing so, both men have helped nurture a culture of norms that oil the South African political system. They have built institutions which can, peacefully and without resorting to the raw power of the military, hold the strongest to account. Yet when dealing with the Zimbabwean crisis and others on the continent, Mbeki seems comfortable to lower the bar; condoning behaviour that he would never accept in his own country. Hence instead of condemning President Mugabe and the violence in 2008, he publicly feigned ignorance of the crisis that was unfolding. This week, although his intervention is obviously promoted by a real crisis in Zimbabwe, he still talks about supporting the government without acknowledging the egregious and unacceptable violence upon citizens.

Zimbabwe needs truthful, honest peers

Zimbabwe needs peers who are truthful, honest and frank, not those who mollycoddle the regime. Regional peers who think of making the regime comfortable are effectively enabling repression. The role of regional actors as enablers was highlighted. This is partly because they remain silent in the face of State-sponsored violence and human rights violations. It is also because they actively support the regime while ignoring the plight of citizens. Both reactions give comfort to the regime. They create a moral hazard in that the regime has incentives to misbehave in full the knowledge of the fact that there will be no regional censure.

The problem of State-sponsored political violence has been endemic ever since the dawn of independence and it is at the centre of contamination of the political process, which leads to illegitimacy. It is common cause that the colonial State was a violent State. The Zanu PF State simply carried on from where the Rhodesian Front left. What Zimbabwe needs, far more than mediation, is a clear and unambiguous position from its peers that this is unacceptable. Anything else is just papering over the cracks.

There are reasons why many Zimbabweans don’t trust their political referees. They have been hurt too many times to the point that they have lost confidence in a political system that habitually sways in favour of Zanu PF. If somehow he manages to persuade the MDC Alliance into some pact with Zanu PF, citizens are likely to dismiss it as yet another elite pact, just like the 1979 Lancaster House Constitutional Agreement; the 1987 Unity Accord and the 2008 GPA. All these agreements have one thing in common: they created room to accommodate feuding politicians but failed to produce substantive and lasting changes in the lives of ordinary people.

Constitutional amendments

The proposed constitutional amendments are a clear indicator to Mbeki of the insincerity of the regime that he is dealing with. The collective effect of the proposed amendments is to increase presidential power. This follows the first amendment in 2017 which was also designed to increase the power of the president. In effect, the mild gains of the 2013 Constitution in limiting presidential power are being reversed. Instead of implementing political reforms as per the constitution, the regime is amending the constitution to reverse those reforms.

Mbeki might have a soft spot for a party that draws roots in liberation politics, but the regime it leads is not amenable to progressive ideas. The way the regime is hell-bent on changing the young constitution to re-create an imperial presidency is the behaviour of a reactionary organisation which is preoccupied with amassing and retaining power at all costs.

If peers are to be involved at all, it would be to discourage such retrogressive behaviour. Giving succour to the regime will only have the effect of enabling authoritarianism.

Zimbabwe has been down this hideous path before, when in the 1980s the Constitution was amended to create an Executive Presidency, dismantling the original constitution which had institutional checks and balances. The current set of amendments, at a time when the regime is feigning reforms, suggest that the country is going down a similarly ugly path of authoritarian rule.

There’s a stone in my shoe

Mbeki has the advantage of knowing Zimbabwe better than most leaders on the continent. But there is also a risk that his knowledge and experience combine to make him far more than a neutral observer. When you have been involved in a dispute for too long, familiarity might breed partiality for one of them. And, as we have seen, that is a challenge that Mbeki faces in the eyes of some Zimbabweans who see him as too close to Zanu PF.

Why now? Why him? Since Zanu PF is so confident of its victory and the legitimacy of its power, what would they want from the loser that they routinely mock, condemn and malign as irrelevant? The economic situation is desperate and showing no signs of getting any better. This is the cost of flawed elections that produce outcomes that are bereft of legitimacy. It is the cost of political stubbornness and intransigence. The nation endured it under Mugabe and the costs have escalated under Mnangagwa.

When Don Altobello meets Mosca in The Godfather Part III he wants help to eliminate a Mafia rival. “There is a stone in my shoe. I want you to remove it,” he says to Mosca, a euphemism for eliminating a problem. President Mbeki helped shift a stone in Mugabe’s shoe in 2008. Some fear that he is back to do it again, but this time for Mnangagwa. It goes without saying that Chamisa and the MDC Alliance must tread very carefully. What Zimbabwe needs is more than removing a stone in Mnangagwa’s shoe.