Sanctions and boycotts have their place, but the moment is past for Zimbabwe

Supporting human rights groups and civil society should be a core aim of our policy now
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The Independent Online

Good guys come in all shapes and sizes. Generally the more surprising the hero, the bigger the impact. A star cricketer who admits he's had a privileged life as a white African doesn't immediately spring to mind as a candidate for sanctification. To be fair, Andy Flower - now of Essex and South Australia - would run a mile from anybody trying to stick him on a pedestal. But a good guy he is.

Along with his black team mate Henry Olonga, Flower did something that the leaders of Africa (and American and Europe too) have gone out of their way to avoid: he made a stand. On a morning when his head should have been preoccupied with an imminent World Cup cricket match, Flower got some black masking tape and made an armband of mourning. Olonga did the same. They went out to face Australia wearing their armbands and mourning the death of democracy in Zimbabwe.

Both men knew they would be sacrificing their international careers, though in modern Zimbabwe that was probably the least of their worries. There are more fundamental threats, such as torture, disappearance, death. Neither Flower nor Olonga can now live and work in the country of their birth. The patron of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union is Robert Mugabe, who once famously declared that he wished cricket would help turn Zimbabwe "into a nation of gentlemen". So much for aspirations. Two of the truest gentlemen the country has ever produced now live in fear of their patron.

I mention Flower and Olonga because I have been arguing with myself all week over the issues of boycotts and sanctions. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at Lords to tell the Zimbabwean cricket team to go home, though many will surely be glad the team came. Their presence meant that Mr Mugabe's regime was in the public eye again; the tour ended up suiting everybody. The players got to play, the protesters got to remind the world once again of the wickedness of the Harare government.

The European Union and the Americans have imposed smart sanctions on Mr Mugabe and his ministers, trying to turn a blunt instrument into something more precise. It hasn't worked terribly well. Ministers still slither out of the country and attend international meetings. Mr Mugabe himself was greeted in Paris and enjoyed the finest hospitality France could supply. He has also enjoyed a long holiday in Malaysia.

Worse still, the chief of his thuggish police force, Augustine Chihuri, has been elected to a senior position in Interpol. This is the same Mr Chihuri who has presided over the destruction of law and order in Zimbabwe. I thought that Interpol was supposed to track down and arrest such people. Suffering Zimbabweans queuing to leave the country are regularly treated to the sight of ministerial limousines gliding across to South Africa on shopping trips.

So far the Zimbabwean sanctions have been pretty pitiful. Yet I think a stage has been reached where going any further could be very dangerous. After a vexed internal debate I've ended up at the position I held when I was a schoolboy protesting against apartheid South Africa: that is to say, I remain a pragmatist. I mistrust those who believe you can take an absolutist position, that the end justifies the journey. Keep Moyo and his likes at home in Harare by all means, but don't call for a total economic blockade.

There are some who want Thabo Mbeki in South Africa to shut down Zimbabwe's power supplies in order to collapse the Mugabe regime. They are not unlike those who, in previous years, advocated a total economic boycott of South Africa. I have little doubt that a total economic boycott of Mr Mugabe's regime would bring chaos to Zimbabwe in a matter of days, probably just 24 hours. Equally I have little doubt that the regime would resort to extraordinarily bloody measures to suppress the food riots that would follow. A total economic boycott of Zimbabwe is a recipe for a bloodbath. And what would we say to the parents of the children dying in hospitals where the power supply has been shut down? On what moral basis would we convince them that shutting down the grid was the correct thing to do?

This week we abandoned a policy of sanctions against Iraq, which were among the most repugnant ever imposed by civilised nations. The ruling Baathists protected themselves well from the impact of sanctions but the poor of Iraq suffered brutally. I have always had misgivings about economic sanctions, if for no other reason than that those who propose them are rarely the ones who will be suffering.

In South Africa, Desmond Tutu used to argue against that position by saying the black population was already suffering terribly. Economic sanctions could not make things much worse. Sorry to take issue with another hero of our times, but an economic blockade of South Africa would have made things unimaginably worse. Most of the subsequent dying - be it from hunger or the violence of the state response - would have been done by black people. As it turned out, South Africa was lucky. The sanctions were sharp enough to give the regime of PW Botha a serious fright, but they didn't bring South Africa to its knees. The campaign for disinvestment in the US was successful enough to bring pressure to bear on the white elite, but it didn't leave a smoking ruin for Nelson Mandela to inherit.

The sports boycott annoyed and embarrassed the white population, and it had some impact on their ultimate willingness to engage in talks with the ANC. But the main motivators for white concessions were much more powerful: the rise of black trade unions who could bring the country to a halt whenever they chose, the rise of a highly organised black political movement in the townships, and the end of the Cold War and US backing for white rule in Africa. FW de Klerk did not agree to negotiate because he loved black South Africans. He was a pragmatist faced with an unstoppable power.

Thus is the situation we now face in Zimbabwe. The Mugabe regime is on its last legs. The African leaders, like Mbeki who once gave the regime cover, have abandoned Mr Mugabe. We have passed the stage where sanctions are the decisive issue. Mr Mugabe couldn't care less what is said about him in London or Washington. But he does care very much what is said in Harare and down in Pretoria.

That is why supporting human rights groups and civil society should be a core aim of our policy now, as well as urging Thabo Mbeki to treat the Zimbabwean opposition as a serious partner. Anybody who knows how Mr Mugabe suppressed the Matabeleland uprising in the 1980s knows the brutality of which he is capable. The farm invasions and attacks on the opposition have been just the smallest foretaste.

For Mr Mbeki the greatest challenge he will ever face is looming in the weeks and months ahead. How will the man who has staked his reputation on creating a new Africa react if Mr Mugabe orders his troops to crush civil unrest? Now is the time for South Africa's President to spell out his plan - if he has one.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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