What can be done about President Mugabe's relentless suppression of all opposition in Zimbabwe? It's a question I keep getting asked over here. Understandably so.
After all, I am not just black, and not just an African, but also a neighbour of Zimbabwe's. More than that, I am a journalist, and my country, South Africa, has gone through the kind of tyranny to which Zimbabwe is subjected at the moment – although the difference is that we were terrorised by an illegitimate, white government fearful of democracy, while Zimbabweans are being treated so shabbily by one of their own, a man they elected into office and once worshipped.
The man who has become such a terrible embarrassment, brutally suppressing opposition and silencing critics, was once the most loved in southern Africa, where we all looked up to him as the elder statesman in our region. Like other southern African leaders, such as Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda, President Robert Mugabe had also contributed immensely in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, a country with which he would have no truck.
Today he has transmogrified into an ogre whose hands are dripping with the blood of innocent people, both black and white. Not only has he reduced what was once a promising country into a basket case on the verge of total collapse, with many ordinary black Zimbabweans now worse off than they were at independence in 1980, but he has also unleashed a terrible reign of fear in the country.
And so, in response to the question, I often explain how disgusted I am with what is going on in Zimbabwe, and what an embarrassment Mr Mugabe is to Africa at a time when leaders on the continent are trying hard to get the world to view Africa differently. When I ask my inquisitors for their views on Zimbabwe, they urge that the international community should isolate Mr Mugabe.
I, too, have held and expressed the same view repeatedly in the past year – and not a single country has so far taken action against Mr Mugabe, who is assured of a warm welcome at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Governments summit in Brisbane. The furthest some governments have gone so far has been to publicly denounce Mr Mugabe's rule of fear; otherwise they have trotted out unimpressive reasons why they cannot act against this despot.
What, then, can be done? Are the men and women of the world, who disapprove of what is going on in Zimbabwe, impotent? Have they no way of demonstrating their anger and forcing their governments into action? They do, and it is now time they unleashed that power upon their own governments.
After all, it was people-power which forced Western governments to take action against apartheid South Africa. It is no secret that leaders like the United States' President Ronald Reagan, Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did not want action taken against PW Botha's South Africa. Instead, they preferred quiet diplomacy or "constructive engagement" in their dealings with Pretoria, while Mr Botha's police continued to murder people in the townships.
It was the citizens of those countries who forced their governments into action. At the height of Mr Botha's repression in the mid-1980s, Randall Robinson's TransAfrica and the Black Congressional Caucus in the US organised daily protests outside the South African Embassy in Washington DC, with many people – some of them well-known individuals like Stevie Wonder – getting arrested to make the point that apartheid was wrong, immoral and a crime against humanity.
In the end, American legislators came up with the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act imposing sanctions against South Africa, and overrode Mr Reagan's veto.
In this country, similar protests took place outside the South African High Commission at Trafalgar Square, with many decent people seizing the opportunity to demonstrate their disgust at apartheid. When Nelson Mandela thanked "the people of Britain" in June for their support during the dark days of apartheid, it was those men and women he was thanking, and not the government of this country, which had insisted on calling Mr Mandela and his ANC comrades "terrorists".
Similarly, in South Africa, ordinary people staged protests on a regular basis, often at a great cost to themselves. At schools, at universities, at workplaces and on the streets of our towns and cities it was very obvious that blacks were fed up with apartheid – and the country was rendered ungovernable.
It was these efforts, involving decent men and women around the world, which forced governments to act against Pretoria. When they finally acted, these governments were responding to public opinion in their countries, otherwise they would have continued indefinitely with their quiet diplomacy.
That is what needs to happen now. People-power should now be used against Mr Mugabe. Let us not fail the people of Zimbabwe. They have already suffered enough.
The writer is an associate editor of 'The Independent' and was Editor of the 'Daily News' in Durban, South Africa.Reuse content