Leading article: Lessons for Mbeki

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The Independent Online

There is a terrible irony in the recent tragic events that have gripped parts of South Africa, where township residents have been turning on economic migrants, killing some and driving away thousands of others.

It lies in the fact that Thabo Mbeki's government has bent over backwards to remain onside with the Mugabe regime in Harare, downplaying its criminal folly and blunting initiatives to rid Zimbabwe of its dictator. South Africa is now suffering the consequences of Mbeki's policy, as Zimbabwe's misery ripples outwards to encompass its neighbours and as millions of Zimbabweans flee their country in search of jobs and livelihoods.

Of course, there are other elements to this grim saga, starting with the inexcusable xenophobia of the men behind the violence. It is notable that not all the incomers who have borne the brunt of these thuggish attacks have been Zimbabweans. But the huge number of Zimbabwean migrants present in South Africa, estimated to be at least 3 million, is a factor in the bloodshed, placing enormous strain on the bonds holding the townships together and adding to the competition for resources.

And when the question is asked, as it should be, about why so many Zimbabweans have left their country for its neighbour, part of the answer is that the Mugabe regime remains in power, and is busy completing the ruin of Africa's former breadbasket, with the South African president's apparent complicity.

Loath to bow to the former colonial powers, Mbeki has shielded Zimbabwe's venal and selfish old leader from criticism, blind to the consequences. Now that the wretched condition of Mugabe's dissolving state has been brought to his door, one must hope the president sees this as a reminder of the need for South Africa to play a more constructive role in helping its once flourishing neighbour get back on its feet.

It is especially urgent that South Africa changes its tune on Zimbabwe now, as Mugabe heads into a run-off presidential election with his nearest rival, Morgan Tsvangirai. The leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change returned to Zimbabwe for the campaign yesterday.

Arguably, this election should not be taking place; because Tsvangirai appeared to win the first round. But we are where we are. As Zimbabwe prepares to vote a second time, Mbeki must stop making excuses for his ally and start expediting rather than blocking change in Harare. If he does not, the impact of Zimbabwe's collapse will continue to have repercussions for South Africa, and we may see more shameful scenes in South Africa's already fragile, hard-pressed townships.

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