Feature

Can Africa fix Zimbabwe?

China has to answer for its attempt to sell arms to Robert Mugabe as he cracks down on people who say he lost Zimbabwe

What happenedA ship carrying Chinese arms for landlocked Zimbabwe’s military reportedly turned back toward China on Tuesday after a coalition of dock workers’ unions and legal and human rights groups in southern Africa prevented the ship from unloading. The resistance from Zimbabwe’s neighbors was an unusual reversal of regional support for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, and a rebuttal of South African President Thabo Mbeki’s nonconfrontational leadership in dealing with Mugabe.

China called the shipment “perfectly normal trade,” but rights activists and Western governments expressed concern that the mortars and ammunition would be used in Mugabe’s reported bloody crackdown on political opponents. (The Washington Post, free registration) Tensions are rising in the country as the government refuses to release the results of March 29 national elections and the opposition resists a run-off because it says its candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, won in the first round. Zimbabwe’s state-run newspaper, The Herald, called for a coalition government. (London Times)

What the commentators saidChina has to answer for why it is selling arms to one of “the world’s worst dictators,” said The Boston Globe in an editorial (free registration), but Mbeki has some explaining to do, too. While South Africa’s dock workers steadfastly refused to unload the “lethal cargo,” Mbeki has been “solicitous of Mugabe—as usual.” By siding with that “political gangster,” Mbeki is betraying not only Zimbabweans but also “South Africa’s own liberation struggle against the anti-democratic apartheid regime.”

There’s a convoluted history behind the “long, cowardly ambiguity” toward Mugabe from post-apartheid South Africa, said Christopher Hitchens in Slate. But the “stirring news” of the union dockworkers’ solidarity with Zimbabweans might finally be bringing this “shameful accommodation” to a close. It’s enough to make a person “remember very piercingly how good it sometimes felt to be a socialist.” If the African Union can overcome its reluctance to “ostracize” an internationally “unpopular” member government, Mugabe’s days may be numbered.

The African Union and South Africa did “press Mugabe publicly” to release and abide by his country’s election results, said Gugulethu Moyo in London’s The Independent. And Zambia and Mozambique were “bolder still.” Mugabe has survived on “the sliver of an illusion that there is some division” between African leaders and the wider international community. Mbeki and Africa’s other leaders now know they “don’t have Mugabe’s ear,” and it’s time for them to make “the final leap” and make handling the Zimbabwe crisis a “united international effort.”

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