BSR: Mbeki – Can he be an honest broker?


Former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki was in Harare this week. He held meetings with several political, civil society and church leaders, including the two major protagonists, ZANU PF’s Emmerson Mnangagwa and MDC leader, Nelson Chamisa. The presence of the statesman and the flurry of meetings gave rise to speculation that he had come to mediate the political impasse that has kept Zimbabwe at a standstill. Unsurprisingly, the trip attracted mixed feelings among Zimbabweans.

An honest broker?

That Zimbabwe needs help to resolve its longstanding political crisis is not in doubt. However, President Mbeki is not new to the longstanding Zimbabwean crisis, a factor that has caused questions and doubts, particularly among opposition supporters. He was the original mediator of the political crisis which led to the Inclusive Government between 2009 and 2013. Earlier efforts had led to a draft constitution (known as the Kariba Draft) which had a stillbirth in 2007.

Given his previous roles, his reappearance on the Zimbabwean political scene naturally divides opinion. Previous experience gives him the advantage of knowing the Zimbabwean situation better than most outsiders. But that experience is also a point of weakness, given the baggage of past acts or omissions. He is the kind of uncle to whom squabbling family members routinely refer their matters. He has the appearance of a thoughtful man endowed with patience and a gift of making everyone comfortable, their misgivings notwithstanding.

But uncles also have their favourite niece or nephew, and when it comes to Zimbabwe, President Mbeki is no exception. Most people in the opposition and other observers see ZANU PF as that preferred niece. For its part, ZANU PF has shown no discomfort with him. His assessment of the Zimbabwean political situation over the course of time has not been very helpful.

For example, it took a 12-year legal battle to overcome President Mbeki’s (and his successors’) resistance to make public a South African judicial report on the disputed 2002 elections in Zimbabwe. Known as the Kamphephe Report, presidents Mbeki, Motlanthe and Zuma resisted calls for its disclosure. The report has made a damning conclusion on the 2002 presidential election. It stated, “However, having regard to all the circumstances, and in particular the cumulative substantial departures from international standards of free and fair elections found in Zimbabwe during the pre-election period, these elections, in our view, cannot be considered free and fair.”

Maybe disclosure of this report in 2002 might have changed views on elections in Zimbabwe and helped to spur others to push for reforms. It’s ironic that the man who suppressed this report and firmly believed the controversial 2002 elections was free and fair became the key mediator of the Zimbabwean crisis and is back again despite perceptions of partiality towards Zimbabwe’s ruling party. When the Kamphephe report was finally released by judicial order in 2014 President Mbeki was still dismissive. “Given its composition and mandate,” he said in respect of the Kamphehe Commission, “we came to the firm conclusion that it was not credibly possible for the judges’ mission to come to a conclusion about all major elements of the elections based on its own direct observations.”

President Mbeki was also supportive of the controversial 2013 elections despite the many weaknesses that meant the government was saddled with legitimacy deficit. It is this systematic endorsement of deeply flawed elections in Zimbabwe and a lack of condemnation of state-sponsored violence that causes people to doubt President Mbeki’s role in brokering a fair and lasting solution to the Zimbabwean crisis. Based on previous experience, his suitability as an honest broker in a dispute that involves the ruling party, ZANU PF remains questionable.

Wrong Prescription

A mediator in a political dispute is essentially a political referee. A political referee must not only be fair; he must be seen to be fair. The last mediation, which led to the Inclusive Government between 2009 and 2013 produced a deeply flawed political arrangement which favoured ZANU PF. Of course, the MDC should have done better to protect its interests but as a mediator, it was his role to see to it that it was a fair deal that would provide a lasting solution.

Instead, the doctor prescribed a painkiller, which kept the pain at bay for four years but did not deal with the actual cause of the pain. The doctor celebrated with the patient when Zimbabwe hobbled through a deeply flawed election in 2013and found itself in another crisis of legitimacy.  That he is back to mediate the same crisis is partly an indictment on his previous efforts.

The hope is that he has carried out a personal review of his last mediation efforts and that he has identified the flaws that led to the continuation of the crisis. It would be tragic denialism if he thought he did a great job in 2008. It would be pointless to apply the same methods that have failed in the past, hoping for a different outcome. The last mediation produced an elite pact with bare provisions which were easily ignored or manipulated by the ZANU PF side of the Inclusive Government. It did not deal with the entrenched problems that had caused the crisis of legitimacy.

Don’t ignore the coup

The elephant in the room, which the mediation ignored in 2008, is the militarization of the Zimbabwean state. The qualification from the situation in 2008 is that it has intensified and become more blatant following the coup in November 2017. There would have been no need for mediation in 2008 if the military had not intervened to brutalise citizens into submission and protect Mugabe’s hold on power. The result was that when the GPA was negotiated the military was an invisible figure in the room – physically absent but very present in effect.

The current crisis following the flawed 2018 elections draws roots from the military coup. President Mbeki cannot afford any pretence that there was no coup in 2017 because the dynamics around that historic moment continue to affect the conduct of political affairs. If he persists with the vacuous view that it was merely a “military-assisted transition” he will be proceeding on a flawed premise. This is why the mediation effort might benefit from an additional former leader or international civil servant with experience in a country that has had military rule in the past. How they handled the military factor and how they overcame or accommodate the military element would be useful to deal with our crisis.

Politics of liberation and regime-change

It is easy to see why President Mbeki has appeared partial to the ruling party. He is after all part of the elites of the liberation struggle era. The ruling parties in both counties form the new post-independence political establishment and members of the establishment generally look after each other. Threats to one are seen as threats against all.

There is a shared liberation ideology among members of the old school that fought colonial rule.  Unfortunately, this brotherhood has given comfort to repressive rulers who have benefited from the support and protection of peers even when they were brutalizing citizens. The Zimbabwean regime has been a foremost beneficiary of this brotherhood and peer protection as peers turn a blind eye to state-sponsored violence. Many Zimbabweans remember President Mbeki’s infamous quip, “Crisis? What crisis?” in response to a journalist who had inquired about the crisis in 2008. It was a shocking demonstration of coldness in relation to the terrible violence that was taking place after Mugabe had lost to Tsvangirai in the March elections. The crisis was plain to the whole world but here was the country’s neighbour feigning ignorance.

President Mbeki’s approach to Zimbabwe was also motivated by what he saw as a “regime change agenda” championed by Western countries, something that was in sync with the then president, Robert Mugabe’s rhetoric against the MDC. . There was, according to President Mbeki, a push for military intervention in Zimbabwe, which he rejected. It is easy to see why President Mbeki thought standing with the Mugabe regime was part of a heroic anti-regime change mission. He thus insisted on a policy of  “Quiet Diplomacy” by which he sought to negotiate quietly with the Zimbabwean regime rather than criticize it in public. This was in contradistinction 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 President Mbeki dealt with then,  Mugabe and Tsvangirai are deceased but it’s not clear that President’s Mbeki’s views on the Zimbabwean political parties have changed. Has President 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 behaviour towards citizens. For example, he seems to have already formed a position that Nelson Chamisa must accept the decision of the Constitutional Court on the presidential election. In framing it this way, President 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. Zimbabwe would have moved on without him. But they have not and that is why President Mbeki has been to Zimbabwe. His return to Zimbabwe is an acknowledgement that the process and outcome of an election it is not just a legal matter. The courts do not have the power to resolve political questions.

President 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 President 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 President Mbeki’s mediation in 2008. That opportunity went begging thanks in large part to a hastily concocted agreement which left the bulk of the 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, President 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 President 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, President 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 making the regime comfortable are effectively enabling repression. In the last #BSR, I discussed the issue of regime enablers, those who by their acts or omissions enable the regime to carry out 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 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 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 President 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.

President Mbeki might have a soft spot 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

President 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 President 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.