“SPEAK UP, THABO” by Bob Onion

The situation in Zimbabwe is rather unpleasant at the moment. Riots, instigated by Robert Mugabe and centering on the land seizure from white farmers, have brought chaos and death to the country.

Zimabwe's own constitutional court has deemed the land seizures to be unlawful and unconstitutional, but Mugabe has carried on.

Recently, the Harare Parliament (or rather that group of hand-picked people which calls itself that way) has passed an amendment to the Land Act, altering the constitution and allowing Mugabe to seize 841 farms with a total area of 2.1 million hectares for forced transfer to new black owners, and this without having to pay any compensation (Which will kindly be provided by the UK, the former colonial ruler, who offered to pay 36 mio pounds towards this redistribution, but only if the process is transparent and fair).It won't.

The land seized so far has not gone to the poor and destitute citizens of Zimbabwe, but exclusively to Mr. Mugabes henchmen and cronies.

All the little people got out of this exercise so far were new masters and an ever-more corrupt nomenclature, but their living conditions haven't improved - rather the contrary has happened.

And talking about transparency and fairness: Already now the international observers dispatched by the UN to monitor the upcoming parliamentary elections of June 24th/25th are crying "foul!".

But nobody pays attention.Zimbabwe's problem is not the land distribution (a large part of agricultural land being indeed owned by just a few white people), the greatest problem this country has is Robert Mugabe himself, a man from the past - and hopefully without a future: Authoritarian, corrupt and undemocratic. The manners of a chieftain and the methods of a despot are quickly turning him into the Slobodan Milosevic of Southern Africa.

His only method of government is violence, dished out to opponents and potential troublemakers by his thugs.

His disregard of the own laws of his own land have taken away every ounce of legitimacy he once could claim. 

The riots and the seizures were designed to create chaos so that he - and his huge clique - can stay in power.

His focus on land ownership and on the racist prosecution of the white citizens (which he dubbed Zimbabwe's biggest enemies) serves the sole purpose of diverting general attention from the disastrous, economic and social failure of his tenure.

If his polls remain bad and his ZANU-PF party looks like losing the upcoming elections, he can increase the level of violence at will, declare a state of emergency and call off the ballot.

All of this isn't exactly a surprising relevation; everybody knows that, and yet everybody keeps pretending that this isn't the case.

There's one guy who should know better and who ought to speak up. Thabo Mbeki, president of the Republic of South Africa, Zimbabwe's southern neighbour.

So far, Mr. Mbeki has remained almost silent - and once approached about the subject he has uttered the irritated remark thatoutsiders (USA and Europe, mainly) shouldn't meddle in things they don't understand and that public recrimination wasn't the way such things are dealt with in Southern Africa.

Discreet diplomacy would do the trick, eventually, he promised. Let's give Mr. Mbeki the benefit of the doubt - for the moment.

Unlike his illustrious predecessor, the larger-than-life Nelson Mandela, he isn't a dazzler or a natural statesman. He is more of a technocrat, a quiet worker.

So who knows, maybe he indeed is trying to pull a few strings in the background. South Africa is in an ideal position to take charge: Being the (relatively) wealthiest and most advanced Sub-Saharan African country, an economic powerhouse and the last, best hope for the whole continent to build-up a decent future, it almost automatically enjoys a natural leadership in such matters.

Just by blocking its borders, for example, to the many Zimbabweans trying to sneak illegally into South Africa for better-paying jobs, it could make things quite uncomfortable for the Mugabe regime.

But so far, Mr. Mbeki has avoided anything which could make life worse for Mr. Mugabe, which in a queer way is sensible, since the despot would answer any deterioration of his situation with even more violence and more deaths of innocent people.

And yet, Mr. Mbeki might be doing his own country a huge disservice by remaining silent and passive for much longer:

There still is that very powerful (white) cliché of African states being chaotic Bantustans or Banana Republics.

A cliché which is currently re-inforced by Mr. Mugabe and which might easily fall back on South Africa.

The Rainbow Adventure, the entire South African model, bases on a firm foundation of democratic legitimacy, of proper conduct and good governance - and it must flounder if this high ground is ever abandoned.

The lack of criticism towards the undemocratic and unsavoury practices employed by Mr. Mugabe could easily be perceived as a tacit support, stain the reputation of the South African and drag it into the dirt.

South Africa is still being scrutinised closely by many international parties.

The jury is still out on the final judgement: "Is that a truly trustworthy country? Things seem to go well enough, but we cannot be perfectly sure now..." And this is exactly what modern international relations are about: Certainty, predictability and reliability - to know where a country stands, to be sure how it will act, to be able to trust it to stick to its commitments.

Any country such as South Africa which is keen to be a part of the world and to have a say in the international community, must make sure that it is considered by others to be straightforward, predictable and reliable.

It must avoid at all cost to emit contradicting signals.

It cannot engulf itself in a saintly shroud - and at the same time appear to condone fiendishness nearby.

Alas, the management of the Zimbabwe situation has so far failed to provide this impression - which is not a positive signal at all in a country like South Africa with its own share of rumours and theories about possible land seizures in the future.

It is not so much white patronising as plain, common sense to reach the conclusion that men like Robert Mugabe ought to be kept away from power and influence; that their lot is to blame for a huge portion of the current, dismal economic situation of Sub Saharan Africa (and not just the arrogant colonial powers with the admittedly harmful decisions they once made decades ago); and that a country with such high claims and legitimate ambitions like South Africa cannot turn a blind eye to its neighbour’s misdemeanour.

Solidarity among black African leaders is a good thing, but must not be extended to the sinister, irresponsible and downright criminal elements among them. That's why Mr. Mbeki should quit pretending that Zimbabwe is of no concern to South Africa and try to stop the disaster from getting worse. Speak up, Thabo!