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IA-Forum Interview: Prof. Victoria Graham

IA-Forum: The Commonwealth of African Nations has recently suspended Zimbabwe for a year following their verdict that Zimbabwean elections were not free and fair. In doing so, the leaders Mr. Mbeki of South Africa and Mr.Obasanjo of Nigeria, have gone against African solidarity to promote democracy in the region. How do you think this decision will affect relations between these three African powers in the future?

Victoria Graham: Mbeki and Obasanjo took the opportunity to flex some muscle in their troika (with the then Australian Prime Minister John Howard). In so doing they were indicating to the rest of the world that they were capable of, if not taking strong measures against Mugabe, at least taking some proactive measures. Nevertheless Mbeki was not comfortable in his decision to support Zimbabwe’s suspension from the 2002 CHOGM for a year. This was obvious when he came out so strongly against the decision of the 2003 CHOGM to continue Zimbabwe’s suspension. South Africa referred to the idea of a continued suspension as “undemocratic and helpful”. Nigeria is a powerhouse on the continent and often vies for power on the continent with South Africa –also a powerhouse in Africa. SA and Nigeria may compete against each other but when it comes to an African problem they will likely back each other up. African solidarity will always be prominent in any foreign policy of South Africa: now and in the future.

IA-Forum: Before the Commonwealth convened, the US told Mr. Mbeki that "Your attitude to Zimbabwe is a test of your commitment to NEPAD (the New Partnership for African Development)". So Zimbabwe was suspended, and as a result, the international community is now considering providing more aid, debt forgiveness and improving access to world markets for Africa's goods. In your opinion, was the decision based on these material goals, or an actual commitment to democracy and human rights?

Graham: I think that these promises from the international community were probably based as much on South Africa’s commitment to achieve NEPAD’s economic goals as the desire to improve democracy and human rights. On must remember too that the western conception of strong economic development and free trade etc is reliant on a strong democracy. The traditional conception of a liberal democracy includes a guarantee of civil liberties and human rights as well as free market and strong economic growth.

IA-Forum: The EU is now also considering economic sanctions on Zimbabwe, but there is much opposition because they would hurt only the country's poor. Usually the only peaceful actions that the international community can take are economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. How effective do you think these will be on Mr. Mugabe and his government? How much "quiet diplomacy" will South Africa in particular be able to effect on Zimbabwe?

Graham: Economic sanctions do have debilitating effects on the poor. This was the principal reason behind the international community’s decision to effect only personal or “smart sanctions”, including travelling bans on Mugabe, his wife, and prominent ZANU-PF officials. These actions have proved to be ineffective given the wide amount of travelling undertaken by Mugabe since these sanctions were put in place. Quiet diplomacy has to date been ineffectual. However Mbeki shows no sign of wanting to alter his current policy. He seems happy to continue his constructive engagement – a current example would be his report to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that the talks mediated by SA to relieve the economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe were a success (this was contested by the MDC leader who referred to Mbeki’s statement as “whitewash”).

IA-Forum: Zimbabwe's main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is still recovering after the allegedly stolen election. South African President Mbeki has recommended a government of National Unity for Zimbabwe, by merging this party with Mr. Mugabe’s party Zanu-PF. Do you think this is viable?

Graham: Collaborative governments have both positive and negative criticisms. In this case however I do not think the merging of the two parties will take place because they are too different as far as their views of running the country are concerned. Given ZANU-PF’s lack of respect for the opposition leader Morgan Tsvingirai (his beating by the Zimbabwean police in March 2007); it seems that a merging of the two parties is not viable. The elections of 29 March 2008 will be an important event in Zimbabwe. MDC leader Morgan Tsvingirai has already expressed doubt at the validity of these upcoming elections, and has expressed concern that they will not be free and fair.

IA-Forum: Apart from the stolen election and Mugabe's administration, are there any other structural obstacles to democracy in Zimbabwe? What do you predict for the country's democratic process in the near future? Will the government respond to international pressure, or will Zimbabwe slip back into a repressive form of government again?

Graham: ZANU-PF is entrenched in all echelons of Zimbabwe’s government – this would have to be altered if a truly democratic and representative government were to take over in Zimbabwe. I think that there would be a better chance of true democracy in Zimbabwe if Mugabe left and a new government representative of the entire population was voted in. It is highly unlikely that the ZANU-PF government will respond to international pressure. It has not in the past and indeed Mugabe has only ever responded to so-called “western” or “liberal” pressure with accusations of colonialism. I don’t think that Zimbabwe has moved out of a repressive kind of state and remains more of a totalitarian democracy than a liberal democracy. Nevertheless it is interesting that Mugabe is facing competition from his own party in the form of Mr. Simba Makoni (whose bid for presidency has been backed by former home affairs minister Dumiso Dabengwa – another power player in ZANU-PF).

Victoria Graham is a lecturer of politics at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. She is also the author of the article "How Firm the Handshake? South Africa's Use of Quiet Diplomacy in Zimbabwe from 1999 to 2006", featured in the African Security Review journal.

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