Michael Gerson’s Washington Post column last week contained a major scoop that hasn’t received nearly enough press attention. In a piece about South Africa’s woeful support for despots around the world, Gerson revealed:
In late April, about the time this e-mail was written, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa — Zimbabwe’s influential neighbor — addressed a four-page letter to President Bush. Rather than coordinating strategy to end Zimbabwe’s nightmare, Mbeki criticized the United States, in a text packed with exclamation points, for taking sides against President Robert Mugabe’s government and disrespecting the views of the Zimbabwean people. “He said it was not our business,” recalls one American official, and “to butt out, that Africa belongs to him.” Adds another official, “Mbeki lost it; it was outrageous.”
South Africa’s Sunday Times reports that while Mbeki’s office does not acknowledge the letter, the American embassy in Pretoria confirmed that President Bush did receive a letter from Mbeki.
That Mbeki would write a rambling, 4-page screed “packed with exclamation points” to the President of the States is yet further confirmation of his paranoid, conspiratorial world view, and complete unfitness for executive office. It is of a piece with his belief that HIV does not cause AIDS and that those who complain about South Africa’s rampant crime problem are all closet racists. Moreover, as Gerson notes, Mbeki is but symptomatic of the African National Congress’s broader attempt to position South Africa in an anti-Western, Third-Worldist posture on the international stage. Allowing Robert Mugabe to ruin his country is simply the price to be paid when the alternative is the election of a political party favored by the West.
Meanwhile, not long after Mbeki fired off his strange missive to President Bush, Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai sent his thoughts to the dictator-abetting South African president, who had been tasked by both Bush and regional leaders with mediating Zimbabwe’s ongoing political crisis. He does not mince words, informing Mbeki that if his style of “diplomacy” persists, “there will be no country left.” While Mbeki tells President Bush to “butt out” of African affairs (a strange request, considering the fact that the United States has been relatively passive about the chaos in Zimbabwe), Zimbabwe’s democrats wish the reverse: that the United States take a more proactive role while Mbeki exit the stage.
The riots which swept Johannesburg yesterday were, according to the Guardian, “the worst violence to hit Johannesburg since the politically-driven killings of the final years of apartheid.” Judging by the photographs, one could be forgiven for thinking yesterday’s uproar actually were scenes from the 1980′s. The targets of these roving mobs–which rampaged through not only the poor, sprawling townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg but also ravaged the city’s downtown business district–were foreigners, most of whom are Zimbabwean. South Africa has an unofficial employment rate believed to be hovering around 40%, and the presence of outsiders willing to work cheaply has for many years been a source of embitterment for South Africa’s poor blacks. (And a glaring shortcoming of the African National Congress’s promise to redistribute the country’s wealth.)
This latest outburst, while reprehensible, was bound to happen. Over the past eight years, what started as a steady stream of migrants fleeing the tyranny of Robert Mugabe has turned into a flood. At least three million (and perhaps many, many more) Zimbabweans (a full quarter of the country’s native population) now reside illegally in South Africa. Some 3,000 people cross the border every week. Zimbabwe has become, as a South African economist told me in 2006, “South Africa’s Mexico.”
Yet the situation is far more dire than that of Mexico and America. The glaring deficiency with this analysis is that we don’t have a 40% unemployment rate. Moreover, you can be sure that were Mexico experiencing the tumult that Zimbabwe has over the past 8 years–a dictator stealing elections, killing his political opponents, and starving his people–America would do something about it, from enforcing stringent sanctions to carrying out regime change.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, meanwhile, has carried out a policy that has amounted to saying nothing about the human rights catastrophe next door while keeping the United Nations and Western countries at bay. South Africa is beginning to experience the chaos wrought by its negligence towards Mugabe. The only beneficial outcome of the growing refugee crisis within its borders is the possibility that it may change the government’s attitude towards the dictator.
On Friday, the An Yue Jiang, a Chinese ship carrying arms bound for Zimbabwe, left the port of Durban. Earlier, a high court refused to allow the weapons to be transported across South African soil.
The decision capped a surprising turn of events. On Thursday, Themba Maseko, a spokesman for Pretoria, said that his country would not stop the shipment as long as formalities had been completed. Dockers of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, however, refused to unload the cargo, fearing that Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe might use the weapons against his opponents, who are locked in a post-election standoff with him. Mugabe appears to have lost his post in the March 29 presidential election but is unwilling to step aside.
“This vessel must return to China with the arms on board,” the union said in a statement. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely. The rust bucket is headed for Luanda, where the weapons will be unloaded for a long overland trek to Zimbabwe. So the workers have won only a symbolic victory.
Yet symbolism matters, especially to autocrats. South African workers apparently know that. “How positive it is that ordinary dockers have refused to allow that boat to go further,” said Mary Robinson, the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights. Mary, you’re right, of course. But let’s not call these South Africans “ordinary.” They have done more to stop Chinese autocrats from aiding Mugabe than their own leader, Thabo Mbeki–and than the most powerful individual on earth, President George W. Bush.
As Robinson said, the Durban port workers tried to stop something they believed was wrong. Perhaps the American people should ask their leader to go to South Africa so he can learn a thing or two from the longshoremen in Durban.
In the past several weeks, Robert Mugabe has announced that he will ban American and EU observers from documenting the upcoming presidential election in Zimbabwe (though he has invited representatives from China, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia). His country’s inflation rate has surpassed 100,000%. The harassment of journalists, civil-society activists, and opposition politician continues unabated. Does any of this information move South Africa, governed by the African National Congress?
A place to look would be President Thabo Mbeki’s weekly email bulletin. A brief search through the archive shows that he has not bothered to address the humanitarian catastrophe in Zimbabwe for months. This week, however, on the verge of what will be a rigged election in Zimbabwe, Mbeki takes the time to plead that Israel “stop the collective punishment of the Palestinian people” and end its “punishing blockade of Gaza.” Given that a country halfway around the world defending itself from daily terrorism invokes such anger in President Mbeki, perhaps he could work up a measurable degree of outrage about the crimes against humanity committed by the evil man immediately to this north.
This week President Bush is touring Africa, a part of the world where both he and the United States remain remarkably popular. This is due, in part, to the massive aid his administration has designated for HIV-prevention, truly a monumental effort (especially in comparison to the dilatory record of his predecessor.) While political analysts will bicker for a long time over practically every aspect of the Bush legacy, his record on African issues is one that even Bush’s harshest critics can admire.
Bush has spoken out consistently against Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. Now, finally, he is denouncing Mugabe’s South African enablers, as well. Last week, in a White House speech that presaged his trip, Bush had some harsh words for Robert Mugabe, stating that the “discredited dictator” had “ruined” his country. This sort of rhetoric is par for the course, but what followed was unusual. “I was hoping that the South African government would have been more pro-active in its intercession to help the people of Zimbabwe,” he said.
In 2003, visiting South Africa, Bush called President Thabo Mbeki his “point man” on Zimbabwe. Five years later, Zimbabwe has gone from a politically tumultuous state into a full-blown humanitarian disaster. As much as a third of the country’s population now lives as refugees in neighboring countries, life expectancy is the lowest on earth, and inflation hovers somewhere around 100,000%. Mbeki’s record on Zimbabwe has been nothing short of disastrous, and his certifying what is bound to be yet another stolen election next March is his latest poke in the eye to Zimbabwean democrats. In a rare outburst, the leader of the Zimbabwean opposition — which has been nothing but deferential to the South African government throughout its struggle against tyranny — criticized Mbeki and demanded that he stop his “quiet support for the dictatorship” of Mugabe. Though neither Zimbabwe nor South Africa is on Bush’s itinerary, perhaps the president can deliver a speech in his remaining days urging Africa’s leaders to end their support for one of the world’s longest-serving tyrants.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, who apparently doesn’t have greater problems to deal with, has announced that his country will host the follow-up session to the 2001 Durban World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. This conference, of course, was infamous for its near-instantaneous descent into anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. How a United Nations conference could ever combat something as nebulous as “Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance” is an open question. The U.N. has repeatedly proven itself rather adept at promoting bigotry itself (see its infamous resolution condemning Zionism as racism), and has repeatedly shied away from protecting people from violent racists, whether it be Darfurians attacked by the Arab government in Khartoum or white farmers evicted from their land in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
Tony Leon, the former leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance party and now its spokesman on foreign affairs, warned that the conference would once again serve as a front for anti-Semitism:
“The question then arises how South Africa hopes to steer the conference in a direction of balance and probity, rather than leading it to degenerate again into a hate fest of intolerance and imprudence.”
He added that the South African taxpayer forked out R100-million for the last World Conference against Racism. “The results have been dismal and in terms of the advancement of the real fight against racism, almost non-existent.”
He asked: “Are we again going to witness, host and pay for a slanted, sectional and sectarian conference, or will we use our best endeavours and our foreign policy credentials to steer it in the right direction?”
Secretary Rice has already announced to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States will not partake in the conference if it “deteriorates into the kind of conference that Durban I was.” Canada has already bowed out of the conference irrespective of whatever makes it onto the agenda.
There is good and bad news from South Africa. The good news is that the ruling party, the African National Congress, had its first wide-open and competitive election to choose a new leader. The bad news is that the winner is Jacob Zuma, an uneducated populist given to violent rhetoric (at campaign rallies he sings a catchy ditty called, “Bring me my machine gun”). With this victory, Zuma becomes a shoo-in for the Presidency. Zuma was fired as Deputy President over charges of corruption, and still faces trial over those allegations. He has beaten charges of rape in the past (his defense was that the woman was asking for it by wearing a short skirt in his house). It is almost as if Huey Long had become the Democratic Party Presidential nominee in the 1930′s, except that democracy in South Africa is much newer and more fragile than it was in America at the time.
The incumbent President and ANC leader, Thabo Mbeki, has hardly had an unimpeachable tenure. As my fellow contentions blogger Jamie Kirchick has pointed out, he has been guilty of not paying enough attention to AIDS or to human-rights abuses next door in Zimbabwe. But he has been a model of economic stewardship, eschewing the ANC’s Marxist rhetoric in favor of sound fiscal management. Despite pressure from his party’s base, he has not moved to punish whites or to dispossess them of their farms and businesses. Instead, he has continued the reconciliation policies of Nelson Mandela, one of the great men of the 20th century. In the process, Mbeki has made his country a model of democracy and economic growth on a continent that badly needs some success stories.
The concern now is that Zuma could undo Mbeki’s legacy, the worst case being that he could turn into another out-of-control tyrant like Robert Mugabe. Such concerns seem overblown, at least for the moment. Zuma has been promising business leaders that he will not depart too radically from Mbeki’s pro-business policies. More importantly, although South Africa has a fairly anemic, if vocal, opposition party, it does have some robust checks and balances from an independent press and judiciary. The latter may wind up being the country’s salvation. If Zuma is convicted in a pending bribery case, he would be ineligible to serve as President, and a more moderate ANC leader might emerge to succeed Mbeki.
Richard Nixon was the most paranoid of American leaders, frequently lashing out at enemies—real or perceived—out to get him. Whether it was the “East Coast Establishment” in their ritzy private clubs and their control over the media, or hippies, Jews, or homosexuals, it seemed that nearly everyone was arrayed against Nixon. The great irony was that, by the time of his resignation, this was pretty much true.
R.W. Johnson, one of South Africa’s leading journalists, has an excellent piece in today’s Wall Street Journal about South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has been nothing short of a disaster for his country. The focus of Johnson’s piece is Mbeki’s exceptional paranoia, which seems to match that of Nixon. Perhaps the most bizarre of Mbeki’s obsessions concerns the source of his support for Robert Mugabe; Johnson writes that it stems from the belief that a Western plot exists to topple Mugabe in Zimbabwe, with Mbeki’s African National Congress next in its sights.
To his legacy of AIDS denial, rampant crime, and support for the regime of Robert Mugabe, Mbeki will soon be able to add his bequeathing of the country to Jacob Zuma, a man likely to prove the impossible task of being a worse leader than Mbeki. Zuma has credibly been accused of corruption (the investigation is still pending), and though he was cleared last year of rape charges against an HIV-positive woman half his age, he infamously announced at trial that he was safe from infection because he had showered after intercourse.
Just as with Nixon, Johnson observes of Mbeki that “it really is true now that his opponents are conspiring against him, that he is cornered and that his enemies may triumph.” The African National Congress’s annual convention, to be held later this month, will decide the party’s next leader, who, because of the one-party dominant nature of the state, will in all likelihood become the next president of South Africa. “The next month or two are going to be a difficult time in South Africa,” Johnson ends ominously. But with the pending arrival of Jacob Zuma to the presidency, the next two months will be just the beginning.
In Zimbabwe, presidential and parliamentary elections have been scheduled for March of 2008. The decision to hold these elections—brokered after a series of negotiations held under the auspices of South African president Thabo Mbeki—has been hailed by none other than the regime of Robert Mugabe itself. What, then, is to make us believe that the outcome of next March’s balloting will prove any different than the results of past elections in 2000, 2002, and 2005, all of which were rigged? Indeed, there have been several disturbing developments over the past several weeks which indicate that neither Mugabe nor (more worryingly) Mbeki are serious about free and fair elections.
According to opposition leaders, since the end of the South African-brokered negotiations, the Zimbabwean government has turned down 103 applications for political rallies (the fact that political parties must register with the government before holding a rally is itself indicative of the nature of the Mugabe regime) and it is still meting out violence against democracy activists. Yesterday, the government reiterated its support for stringent media laws which make it practically impossible for foreigners to own television or radio stations (effectively banning the foreign television and radio media from operating freely in the country). This will make it easier for the regime to cover its inevitable election abuses come next year.
And to add insult to injury, after having declared victory over British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in a diplomatic row over his attendance at an upcoming European Union-African Union summit in Lisbon, Mugabe’s mouthpieces are now demanding that the E.U. tell Brown to “shut up” about Mugabe’s gross abuses of human rights because “Gordon Brown is not even qualified to talk to us on human rights and as you can see he failed his own country’s internal democracy in Britain.” This is in reference to Brown’s decision not to call an immediate election to ratify his mandate as an unelected prime minister who assumed power following the resignation of his predecessor. An absurd allegation, of course, but one that apparently seems to convince Mugabe’s fellow African leaders.
Amidst all of these recent developments, how can anyone honestly believe that next year’s elections will be free and fair?
Last week, the boldest and most outspoken advocate for liberty in Zimbabwe—Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city—resigned his position because of a sex scandal. This summer, after speaking out against the Mugabe regime, Ncube incurred the dictator’s wrath; state newspaper and television stations propagated photos of Ncube with a married woman, whose husband has since filed an adultery charge against the Archbishop. As Ncube made the painful decision to step down, he nonetheless denounced the “crude machinations of a wicked regime.”
But earlier this week, seemingly hopeful news emerged from Zimbabwe, in the form of a tentative political agreement between Mugabe’s long-ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The details are sketchy at this point, but they indicate an agreement on the preconditions for free and fair elections to be held next year. Predictably, the government of South African President Thabo Mbeki, who had been tasked by the Southern African Development Community, a regional group, with bringing the parties together, applauded the breakthrough as progress toward “a lasting settlement.”
Last week, the New York Times published a curious op-ed entitled “Why Africa Fears Western Medicine,” by Harriet A. Washington. The piece was published days after the Libyan government’s release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, who had been falsely accused of injecting hundreds of children with H.I.V., and then sentenced to death (the release was arranged, with much fanfare, via a $426 million ransom paid by European governments). Washington writes that “to dismiss the Libyan accusations of medical malfeasance out of hand means losing an opportunity to understand why a dangerous suspicion of medicine is so widespread in Africa.”
Washington has little to say about the wisdom of Africans’ rejection of advanced Western medicine in favor of “traditional” African remedies. Instead of an explanation, she cites a list of “high-profile Western medical miscreants who have intentionally administered deadly agents under the guise of providing health care or conducting research.” And it’s true that the quacks she lists—like Wouter Basson, the former head of the apartheid South African regime’s chemical weapons program (though he is a white South African, not “Western”)—have sowed distrust among Africans about the intentions of Western doctors.
But what of the Western doctors welcomed to South Africa by President Thabo Mbeki? Washington neglects to mention, for instance, Peter Duesberg, one of the leaders of the H.I.V. denialist movement, which seeks to discredit the contention that H.I.V. causes AIDS. Nor does Washington note Matthias Rath, a German doctor who peddles vitamins and promises of a cure for AIDS to poor blacks in shantytowns. And of course there is the South African Minister of Health, widely derided as “Dr. Beetroot,” for suggesting that AIDS sufferers eat Beetroot and African potatoes to treat AIDS. Earlier this week, President Mbeki fired his deputy health minister, one of the few people in his government deserving of praise for anti-AIDS prevention work. Perhaps Harriet A. Washington should start asking African leaders to look at their own failings on the AIDS front before blaming the West for the continent’s problems.