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Brian Raftopoulos argues that the SADC mediated talks between ZANU-PF and MDC were undermined by the unwillingness of Zanu PF to allow for a significant opening up of political spaces in the country. He further argues that SADC's endorsement of an outcome that did not take broad democratic principles into account was in effect an endorsement of Mugabe 2007 SADC mandate to South Africa to broker an agreement between Zanu PF and the MDC should be seen as an extension of the “quiet diplomacy” that has been the hallmark of the South African and SADC approach to the Zimbabwe crisis since 2000. It took on an added urgency after the brutal public beating, arrest and torture of opposition and civic leaders in March 2007 and the widespread attacks on the MDC structures that followed thereafter. A combination of international pressure and the obligation by SADC to be seen to be taking action on the Zimbabwe question, led to an Extra-Ordinary SADC Heads of State Summit in Tanzania at the end of March 2007 at which South Africa was given the facilitation mandate on Zimbabwe.

There was widespread cynicism in many quarters both within and outside of Zimbabwe about the possibility of success of such an intervention, given the history of SADC’s supine position on Mugabe’s authoritarian regime. However it also presented an opportunity for national, regional and international forces to navigate a common approach out of the Zimbabwean debacle by reaching a political agreement that would be broadly acceptable to all sides.

For the MDC, weakened by the split in the organization since 2005, there was little alternative to such talks, as other methods of confronting the Mugabe regime had hitherto been handled with characteristic intolerance and repression by Zimbabwe’s ruling party. Mugabe, under strong pressure from SADC to enter the dialogue, had little option but to at least be seen to be willing to talk to the opposition. The South Africans, always keen not to make any interventions on Zimbabwe without regional support, saw this as an opportunity to push their “quiet diplomacy” agenda, and perhaps end up with their longstanding hope for a reasonably free and far election that would result in a Government of National Unity led by a reformed Zanu PF. The EU and the US, long frustrated by Mugabe’s intransigence and the regional and continental solidarity he continued to receive, also had little alternative but to allow the “point man” Mbeki the time to play his hand.

Mbeki started out with the intention that the dialogue between Zanu PF should achieve three objectives. Firstly both parties should endorse the decision to hold parliamentary elections in 2008. Secondly they should agree on the steps that should be taken to ensure that all concerned accept the elections as being truly representative of the “will” of the Zimbabwean people. Thirdly, that there should be agreement by all political parties and “other social forces” on the measures that should be implemented and respected in order to facilitate a legitimate election. The “other social forces” referred to the civil society groups who were cast in a more or less supporting role in the whole play.

Towards the end of 2007 the facilitation had, in the words of the MDC, reached “significant but not full consensus” on a number of areas in a political agreement covering issues of violence, sanctions, land, abuse of traditional leaders and food aid. The talks themselves, begun in an atmosphere of enormous distrust, appeared to have made some progress, with Zanu PF swallowing the bitter pill of negotiating with an opposition party that it had since 1999 labeled a foreign construction.

The dialogue also provided the divided MDC with an opportunity to work together as joint negotiating partners, even as attempts to re-unite the two formations were continuing parallel to the SADC facilitation. Discussions on the various aspects of the SADC dialogue added to the urgency of the need for the two MDC’s to at last work towards an election pact that would allow them to fight the 2008 Presidential and general elections together. Moreover it was clear to the MDC negotiators that if the talks were to break down with Zanu PF it had to be seen to be the fault of Mugabe’s party, and not due to any obstructiveness on the part of the opposition.

As matters transpired it was precisely the intransigence of Zanu PF and the unwillingness of Zanu PF to allow for a significant opening up of political spaces in the country, that lead to an impasse in the negotiations at the end of 2007. Notwithstanding some small changes to the media and public order legislation, the ruling party proved unwilling to make substantive changes on the issues that would affect the transitional political arrangements that would precede the 2008 elections. At the centre of the political deadlock that emerged in December 2007 were three areas: the date of the election; the timeframe for the implementation of the agreed reforms; and the process and modality of the making and enactment of a new constitution. Mugabe’s unilateral proclamation of the election date for 2008, outside of an agreement of these substantive issues, effectively put an end to the SADC facilitation process.

The SADC announcement on the 4th February 2008 that Mbeki’s facilitation had resulted in the political parties reaching an “agreement on all substantive matters relating to the political situation in Zimbabwe” and that the matters outstanding were merely procedural, was the worst kind of political dishonesty. What might have been a principled stand by the outgoing President Mbeki turned into another disgraceful endorsement of the politics of a repressive regime.

The SADC has once again demonstrated its inability to distinguish between Africa’s concern for imperialist interventions, and its commitment to the democratic and human rights of the region’s citizens. It has subordinated the latter to a grubby solidarity with a repressive political regime that has transformed a lofty Pan Africanist discourse into a spurious attempt to legitimize a authoritarian political project. The regional organization had an opportunity to send an unambiguous message to Mugabe that unless he fulfilled the objective of establishing the conditions for a broadly acceptable free and fair election, he could not expect the customary solidarity of SADC. Such a position could have changed the dynamic of Zimbabwean politics decisively and helped to ensure that further intransigence on Mugabe’s part would be met with stronger censure in the region.

That SADC once again took the line of least resistance has demonstrated its lack of commitment to questions of democratic principle, and its priority of protecting libration leaders who have long failed their citizens. However perhaps a Makoni victory in the forthcoming elections will satisfy the need by some SADC members for a reformed Zanu PF solution, for a long time the real objective of “quiet diplomacy.”

*Brian Raftopoulos, Director of Research, Solidarity Peace Trust. This article first appeared in the Mail and Guardian.

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