Mugabe’s triumph comes at a huge cost to democracy and stability in Zimbabwe, as well as in the region. The actions of the Mugabe regime in the run-up to Tsvangirai’s decision demand a strong regional response to what is clearly a stolen victory. Indeed, Mugabe’s continuing in power represents the most serious challenge to Africa’s nascent democratic institutions and to South Africa’s vision of a continent of peace and prosperity.
After contesting every election since 2000, Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has changed tactics reluctantly. Under the circumstances, South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) urgently need to reappraise their approach not only to Mugabe, but to how they will deal with any uncontested election.
A host of declarations adopted over the years by the SADC and the African Union address the conduct of elections on the continent. These include the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2004), the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance (2007), and the Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa (2002). None of these principles have been respected in Zimbabwe, and regional leaders have not cited their violation as reason to censure Mugabe’s government.
Unfortunately, we have a recent precedent for this type of behavior: Kenya’s rulers, too, ignored and twisted the rule of law and the integrity of the electoral process, relying on violence to secure a political outcome that their fellow citizens denied them.
Dealing effectively with political instability in Africa requires two things: the political will of key states to underwrite the democratic process, and strong regional institutions to provide a legal framework reflecting the principles underpinning states’ behavior. The effectiveness of regional institutions and the role of regional powers are interlinked. Regional institutions can entrench themselves only if their members promote adherence to the spirit and letter of their legal frameworks.
In both cases, South Africa – the main regional power with the most levers of influence over Zimbabwe – has a vital role to play. But does South Africa really see itself as a regional power? Its handling of Mugabe over the past eight years has actually underplayed its leverage. Yet the mantle of a regional power sometimes requires using that leverage for the greater good of the region.
What should South Africa do now? Should President Thabo Mbeki step down as mediator in the Zimbabwe crisis, not because he has failed, but to remove from South Africa the constraints that being a mediator put in place?
South Africa has a vested interest in stability, and it can turn the screws on Mugabe’s regime, much as it has refused to contemplate any form of sanctions because of their impact on the poor. South Africa must tap into the growing concern among Zimbabwe’s neighbors (Angola, Botswana, Tanzania, and Zambia) about the political crisis, and forge a united front within the SADC that sends a clear message to Mugabe and his generals that the region will no longer tolerate their actions.
The SADC should not endorse the regime’s claim of victory in an uncontested election. It must insist that all opposition leaders and supporters be freed immediately, and that all state-sponsored violence be halted. It should dispatch an eminent persons’ group of senior African and other international leaders to Zimbabwe, as well as peace monitors to ensure that the government complies with these demands.
The SADC’s censure of Mugabe and his regime should be backed up by concrete actions, such as restrictions on all arms flows to Zimbabwe, travel restrictions on senior officials of Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, and the threat of property seizures and the freezing of financial assets in the region and beyond.
Mbeki and other SADC leaders should recognize a key point. According to legal opinions commissioned by the Southern African Litigation Center, Zimbabwe’s Electoral Act holds that the delay or absence of a lawful run-off means that the candidate who obtained the most votes in the election of March 29, 2008, has been duly elected as President.
Moreover, South Africa was instrumental in drafting the declaration on unconstitutional changes of government, adopted by the Organization of African Unity, the AU’s predecessor, in 1999. The manner in which the electoral process in Zimbabwe has been conducted since March has been an unconstitutional continuation of government. The declaration clearly stipulates that an incumbent government’s refusal to relinquish power to the winning party after free, fair, and regular elections is unconstitutional.
If South Africa sees itself as speaking for Africa on the global stage and creating a vision for the continent’s future, it must know when to lead and how to build consensus. None of this is easy, but South Africa must now act decisively in order to polish its tarnished image as a responsible regional power. “Business as usual” is no longer a viable approach for South African foreign policy.