Mugabe's side lost the latest SADC battle before it even formally began

Jun 19, 2011

Regional body SADC has just held its latest meeting on the never-ending crisis in Zimbabwe. Analysts are going crazy over trying to interpret the detail of the resolution that was issued on how close or far Zimbabwe is to being ready for its next election. Predictably both sides of the Zimbabwe impasse are spinning the statement to paint themselves as having got the upper hand. But as far as the overall, multi-pronged battle to shape opinion on the deadlock in Zimbabwe was concerned, the Mugabe government scored many own-goals.

The petty post-meeting propaganda battle has been over whether SADC slapped the wrist of the Mugabe government over its opponents' charges that it is doing everything to prevent an election that is free, fair and clean; or whether SADC agreed with the regime's contention that it was acting in good faith for the playing field to be ready for such a free and fair election.

The 'junior' MDC partners of the coalition government they are in with Mugabe's ZANU-PF say that Zimbabwe is far from being ready for the election that Mugabe and his party are in a hurry for. They cite continuing and widespread violence against their members, disruption of their activities by the police, a media environment still heavily in favour of ZANU-PF, and so on and so forth.

As usual, Mugabe's position was an outraged 'there is no problem at all in Zimbabwe ,except for isolated  pockets of intra-party over-exuberance.' Before the SADC meeting there had been a concerted, coordinated effort made to paint the MDC party as being the main instigators of political violence in Zimbabwe, rather than the various security arms of state still completely under the control of ZANU-PF.

There was simply no way this could have worked, and it didn't. The main MDC party certainly has many of its own problems that tarnish its image. But it was absurd for Mugabe's propaganda machinery to try to put the MDC's internal squabbles, or even cases of external hooliganism, on a par with his own party and governments' control over the real instruments of violence and intimidation. Furthermore, there are now three decades or more of documented evidence of the violence they have not hesitated to ruthlessly unleash on Zimbabweans who dare to say, ''We don't like the way we are being ruled and we believe it is our democratic right to be free to say so.'' The brutal reaction to that simple wish to exercise a basic right of citizenship is a big part of the reason why there is a 'Zimbabwe crisis' for SADC to try to help solve.

There was simply no way that Mugabe and his team were going to credibly paint the MDC as being 'the party of violence' on anywhere near the scale that his party and government have been for decades. It would have been better not to even have tried, than to have SADC and the whole world take this as a sign of the delusion of having the impunity to abuse citizens for so long that you can no longer see it as anything but a right to do so. In just the unconvincing overzealousness of  trying to equate any violence within and by the MDC with that of the entrenched party that enjoys all the benefits of 31 one years of incumbency and a police and army that is openly, publicly partisan, Mugabe's side lost the propaganda war weeks before this latest SADC meeting was held.

Mugabe and his machinery have been at pains to argue that besides being 87, in obviously less than robust physical condition and having ruled with mostly disastrous, impoverishing results for 31 years, there is nothing at all bizarre about him wanting to press on by any means. ''I can't give up now, my party would disintegrate; it desperately needs me.''    

It seems no thought was given by his advisers to how this would sound to the SADC leaders. All of them are second, third or even fourth-removed from the founding presidency of their own countries. If Mugabe's attitude of, 'I am the only capable one' had obtained in their countries, none of the current SADC presidents would had an opportunity to occupy their positions. They would have been hounded, beaten, arrested and spent jail time as the MDC's Tsvangirai and others have experienced for merely saying, 'You have had your turn for a long time, we want to exercise our constitutional right to challenge and remove you.' 

Whatever shreds of respect the SADC leaders may retain for Mugabe, at each regional meeting at which his clinging on so desperately as other countries see leaders come and go severely erodes his influence and position. It becomes ever more difficult to deflect the abundant and mounting evidence that his longevity in power is no longer because of the people of Zimbabwe willingly and freely giving him their support. No mater how politely they may still treat him at meetings, his authority among them has been severely eroded before he utters a word.

Speaking of politeness, there are increasing reports and signs of how that of his fellow leaders towards Mugabe is evaporating. It is easy to see why, quite apart from the mess in Zimbabwe the SADC leaders have been forced to pre-occupy themselves with. At various times in turn, it has been intimated by Mugabe's propaganda apparatus that pretty much all the SADC leaders are somehow defective in their understanding of the situation in Zimbabwe, or that their increasingly cool attitude towards his government is the youthful insolence of people who have no liberation struggle stripes and are too friendly with foreign powers they should permanently regard as having hostile designs on their nations.

No doubt Mugabe's government is deeply suspicious of the reasons for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Zambia, just days before the SADC meeting in South Africa. While Clinton traveled there for a regional trade meeting, undoubtedly a US with a renewed penchant for involving itself in African affairs would have discussed Zimbabwe with the Zambians. Equally without doubt, Clinton's visit has meant the Mugabe government now regards Rupiah Banda's government with even more alarm and suspicion than before, and with more anger and resentment after the perceived humiliation of the Livingstone SADC meeting.

The 'imperialists' are definitely on the loose again in Africa, hunting down 'recalcitrant' leaders who give them any excuse to portray them as despots denying their people 'democracy and human rights.' Look around southern Africa today and tell yourself which ruler/s by their conduct against their citizens make it very easy to be pigeon-holed in this way?

But apart from that, there is no government in the region other than Mugabe's that has any strong reasons for wanting bad relations with the US or the West in general, despite the basic wariness of relating to an imperial power. It is only Mugabe's government in the region that is so shrilly anti-Western. The reasons for this stance may be justified from Mugabe's viewpoint because of Zimbabwe's political history and the progression of events over the past decade in the country.

But the fact of the matter is that he is now the odd man out in southern Africa in having such strained relations with the West. This is a dangerous and unsustainable position for him. His government seems aware of this, as shown by their increasing paranoia about whether they can 'really trust' any regional leaders any more.

The stance propounded by his propaganda machinery that all the other leaders are out of step for their good relations with the West; that only the great Mugabe is the remaining bulwark against the region becoming colonised again increasingly sounds like pissing in the wind, even if it were true. Mugabe has squandered so much of the support and goodwill he once enjoyed, and the authority to go with it, that few are willing to listen to him, dismissing his every utterance as one more desperate ploy to keep 'my Zimbabwe' for himself.

Under very different circumstances Mugabe's warning of 'Africa, beware in your new dealings with foreign powers' would have been very timely, but no longer can he authoritatively and convincingly carry this off. One factor is his irretrievably tainted electoral legitimacy. But another is that while he is rightfully warning SADC to be wary of a rejuvenated Western neo-colonialism, he himself has succumbed to neo-colonialism from China in a way the rest of the countries of the region with close ties to the emerging Asian giant have resisted.

It is a sad, painful story of decline.         

Mugabe may regard himself as being fundamentally superior to his regional counterparts in many regards, but the arrogance he can carry off against the oppressed population he rules over simply does not carry over very well when among co-equal leaders of sovereign nations! Mugabe increasingly finds himself battling to keep the support of regional leaders he needs, but who are aware of the low regard and suspicion in which his government has made it very clear they are held. They may not yet be ready to sell him down the river, but neither are they any more enthusiastically on his side.   

The intimidating, hectoring, lecturing demeanour Mugabe carries off at home also does not play amongst equals who don't have to fear being beaten, jailed or worse by his government, as Zimbabweans challenging him do. There are increasing reports of still relatively polite but stronger signals by SADC leaders at their meetings to let him know that the days of his using his age seniority and ruling longevity to bulldoze and intimidate them into getting his way have come to an end. A more humble man would be introspective enough to see the signs of the diminution of his stature, but Mugabe is simply too far gone for that. He simply is not able to examine the genesis of any problem as attribute to something just perhaps within himself. No, any and every point of disagreement is because his opponent is obviously a 'puppet' of his many many enemies. Only Mugabe is right, noble and pure! 

Mugabe had a meeting with his host South African president Jacob Zuma just before the official SADC meeting. Trying to deflect longstanding and increasing rumours of tension between the two men over differing views and approaches to the Zimbabwe mess Zuma and SADC have been sucked into dealing with, the Herald of June 11 quoted 'a diplomatic source' as saying, ‘‘As you could see from the body language, the two leaders held fruitful discussions about the political situation in Zimbabwe that should bury the media hype about Livingstone.'

This was in reference to yet another recent SADC meeting on Zimbabwe, that one in Zambia, at which Mugabe was given a joint dressing down that shook him and his team, and that they have bee desperately trying to portray as an aberration, rather than a sign of which way the regional wind is blowing over the intractable issue of 'the Zimbabwe crisis.'     

But the photo accompanying the Herald account of how all was well and fine actually contradicted that claim. The 'body language' in the picture was of a grimacing Mugabe and a perfunctorily smiling Zuma stiffly shaking hands. It was funny that the Herald decided to 'go there' in regards to body language because if their choice of photo was the best of those taken they could find to try to illustrate that point of the story, then there clearly was no warmth at all in the Mugabe-Zuma meeting. So on yet another of many scores now working against him, Mugabe was going into the SADC meeting with little affection and support from those he was trying to influence.

It must be remembered that after the humiliation of the Livingstone meeting, Mugabe's propaganda machinery went on an unprecedented, savage attack on Zuma. His official spokesmen tried to distance Mugabe's government from those attacks on a man they should be trying to win over and persuade, but the damage had been done. Whether the propagandists were acting on the own, to curry favour with Mugabe or under direction, they severely undermined Mugabe's persuasion authority with Zuma and the other regional leaders. The government propaganda machinery in Zimbabwe is so out of touch with media trends in a democratic society, so accustomed to character assassination of Mugabe opponents that they seemed unaware that this would be resented and counter-productive for their hapless chief.         

None of the reports on this latest SADC summit have suggested that Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC or the other smaller MDC particularly distinguished themselves at all in making their case about why the political and electoral situation back home was still very far from ideal. But what is notable is that they didn't have to: the Mugabe party did all the hard work for them by shooting themselves in the foot so many times on many fronts, making the MDC come off as the reasonable, persecuted party.    

Forget about the words of the resolution of the meeting. The Mugabe side overwhelmingly lost the battle for hearts and minds, in ways they are too out of it to even begin to comprehend.


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