Sadc must de-escalate Zim-SA row

HARARE - The increasingly threatening rhetoric between Zimbabwe and South Africa over the legacy of Nelson Mandela — who guided his country from the shackles of apartheid to multi-racial democracy — risks triggering a conflict that could escalate to the annihilation of fragile diplomatic relations between the neighbours.

President Robert Mugabe has accused ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe of “stupidly” telling him to stop attacking the former South African president’s legacy in an angry rant to captains of commerce and industry at State House in Harare on Thursday.

In provocative remarks, the 93-year-old leader has repeatedly claimed that Mandela — imprisoned for 27 years for his fight against white minority rule and used his charisma to bring down apartheid while avoiding a civil war — sold out the liberation struggle by going to bed with the architects of apartheid rule.

Mugabe, who was educated by Jesuits and went on to become a teacher before joining the liberation struggle, also spent 11 years in prison and becoming Zimbabwe’s first leader in 1980.

Both Mugabe and Mandela are hailed as African liberation heroes and both preached, and were praised for, messages of reconciliation and unity when their respective countries threw off the shackles of white minority rule.

But while Mandela, now late, retired after serving only one term as South Africa’s first black president and is posthumously basking in glowing world tributes, Mugabe, 93, represents a type of African independence leader who fought successfully for independence, then drifted toward tyranny by clinging to power and is vilified as a cold-hearted despot who crushes civil liberties and steals elections to stay in power.

The nonagenarian Marxist ruler is contesting an election next year that could extend his 37-year rule, spitting defiance at a country that has vilified his appalling economic stewardship and hosted Zimbabwean economic refugees streaming into South Africa, insisting that Mandela left an economy still owned by the white minority, while black people languished in poverty.

Way back in 2000, Mandela levelled an unusual broadside at Mugabe, urging Zimbabweans to depose leaders who enrich themselves at the expense of their countrymen by “picking up rifles and fighting for liberation.”

The Nobel Peace laurete was responding to Mugabe’s drive which saw his henchmen beat and kill opposition-party supporters and violently seize white-owned farms.

Mandela also lamented “the tragic failure of leadership” in Zimbabwe. In an interview in 2013, an angry Mugabe slammed Mandela's halo of global icon of racial harmony, saying he had “gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities.” Mugabe has repeated this accusation ad nauseum, ad infitum.

It seems at the root of this conflict is a desire by Mugabe to be seen as the region’s best liberation hero and to strike back at Mandela for the loss of the mantle of icon of peace and reconciliation who came to embody the struggle for justice around the world.

Is it not time for the 16-nation Sadc bloc to step up to its primary responsibility under its charter: the maintenance of regional peace and security?

South Africa President Jacob Zuma — who assumed office as Sadc chairperson for the next year — is obviously conflicted and cannot mediate his own dispute.

This means his deputy, Namibian President Hage Geingob, must step in, or the Sadc Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation chaired by the new Angolan leader João Lourenço, elected president of sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest economy last week.

Given that Lourenço is new in the job, perhaps the troika’s deputy chairperson, Zambian President Edgar Lungu, must mediate and de-escalate this intensifying row.

Sadc must recommend both Zimbabwe and South Africa reach agreement by diplomatic means, helping with mediation if needed. Sadc has the channels to promote a dialogue between the two feuding countries.

Sadc governments must take steps as a bloc or individually and together to diffuse this unnecessary tension.

Although prospects for cooperation with the current South African government led by Zuma are not promising, other leaders in the ruling ANC, in opposition parties, and in civil society might be more receptive to proactive approaches to averting this row and dealing with the complexities of this stand-off.

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