It is up to South Africa to tell the truth about President Mugabe

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The Independent Online

It is still – just – possible that the voters of Zimbabwe have managed to defeat Robert Mugabe at the ballot box. The omens, however, are not good. We have already witnessed many weeks, indeed months, of intimidation of opposition politicians and their supporters. There is no longer a free press in Zimbabwe, as the travails of our correspondent Basildon Peta demonstrate all too clearly. The voting in the capital, Harare – an opposition stronghold – was suspiciously slow, and the ballot boxes are in the hands of forces fiercely loyal to Mugabe.

Theses worries are confirmed in the verdicts of such monitors of the elections as have been allowed, notably the Norwegian mission, which said that the polling lacked "convincing independence and integrity" and that security forces used new laws to obstruct the opposition's political activities and observations of the election. "The observer mission concludes that the presidential elections failed to meet key, broadly accepted criteria for elections."

Thus Zimbabwe's presidential election of 2002 would appear to conform to the ideal set by the former Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, who once said: "You won the election, but I won the count." Such a turn of events in Zimbabwe should not be allowed to persist without some serious objection. Mr Mugabe is used to the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom raising objections to his conduct, and he views such condemnations as an occupational hazard and with a certain degree of equanimity. The sanctions that have been imposed on him are not tough enough and were applied too late to make any difference to this election.

But there is one voice that Mr Mugabe does have to listen to; that of his powerful southern neighbour, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. For South Africa is, in effect, a regional superpower. Its attitude, more than that of any other single nation, matters to Mugabe. For South Africa has, in effect, bankrolled the Mugabe regime as it wrecked what was once a thriving Zimbabwean economy. Although Mr Mbeki cannot lay claim the huge moral authority of his predecessor, Nelson Mandela, a denunciation of President Mugabe would still carry enormous weight and would represent a serious embarrassment for the Zimbabwean leader.

The immediate question is whether the South African representative on the Commonwealth's panel of three, with Nigeria and Australia, is prepared to say what has become increasingly obvious – that this election was not free and fair. That would represent a considerable push towards expelling Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth and increasing President Mugabe's international isolation.

The decision for South Africa is a difficult one, but it is one that is of supreme importance to the health of the whole region. For President Mbeki and his counterparts throughout the continent know the damage that President Mugabe's policies are doing to the South African economy and to the image of Africa as a whole.

Lawlessness, racial conflict and fraudulent elections are not going to encourage investment in countries that have been neglected for so long. But it is the values of democracy, ideals that South Africa's ruling ANC fought for so long to secure, that are being abused in Zimbabwe. The long queues of voters outside Zimbabwean polling stations were poignantly reminiscent of those that formed in South Africa's first multiracial elections in 1994. President Mbeki is the one man who can make an immediate difference as Mugabe pushes Zimbabwe further towards anarchy. It is a time for leadership.