Quiet diplomacy has failed

President Thabo Mbeki's quiet diplomacy over Zimbabwe has failed.

The clear public split in the ANC over whether conditions exist for a free and fair election in Zimbabwe is further evidence that President Mbeki, in opting for "quiet diplomacy" over the crisis, has made a huge error. Reports continue to rain in of systematic state terrorism directed by the Mugabe government against its political opponents, of beatings, torture, organised gang rapes, house burnings and murders. There can be no doubt that this terror is happening because President Mugabe has determined it should. He promised, after all, that "death would befall" his opponents and that they would be met with "fire".

It is also clear that Mugabe is personally responsible for these atrocities. In Harare people in regular touch with government ministers aver that a majority of the cabinet are alarmed at the course of events but that any attempt to raise their reservations with the president is met with threats of being thrown to the wolves. When Mugabe was out of the country acting president John Msika immediately showed that he wanted to stop the farm invasions but, as soon as the president returned, his efforts were countermanded.

For President Mbeki to appear hand-in-hand with a man who is daily responsible for such atrocities is to place in pawn both South Africa's good name and his own. Mugabe and his cronies will stop at nothing in order to cling to power. Quiet diplomacy cannot work with them: they will promise the moon but deliver nothing. The president has made another cardinal error by continuing to treat the Zimbabwean crisis as essentially a question of land reform. It is not and this is now understood almost everywhere but South Africa. As a result Mbeki has created a body of opinion in this country that will interpret any tougher attitude on South Africa's part as a sell-out to white interests. It is simply not true that Mbeki has no power to affect the course of events in Zimbabwe. He could, literally, switch out the lights there: Zimbabwe depends on Eskom electricity and is not even paying Eskom's bill.

Mbeki should have stated clearly that an African Renaissance is nothing if it is not built on human rights, democracy and the rule of law and explained that it was his responsibility to the continent to speak out strongly when he sees all these things being flouted next door. This would have brought a roar of applause from most South Africans - even Cosatu would have been pleased at the protection thus afforded to their colleague, Morgan Tsvangirai. Such a principled stand would have been applauded by the West, the Commonwealth and the markets. At one stride, Mbeki could have emerged from under the shadow of former president Nelson Mandela.

A great opportunity has been thrown away. Why? Mbeki does not lead from the front - but any real leader must do that, at least from time to time. He does not want to see a labour-led coalition bring down an African nationalist regime in Zimbabwe, as it has already done in Zambia, for fear that it will give Cosatu similar ambitions here. And he also adheres to the African habit of deferring to the chief whatever his qualities. These are understandable reasons, but they do not add up to a convincing rationale for tolerating what is happening in Zimbabwe. The crisis there is several months old now and every fresh murder or rape shows how "quiet diplomacy" has failed. Mbeki does not want to acknowledge that free and fair elections are impossible because he does not wish to acknowledge that failure of diplomacy. This simple denial of reality will not work.

But it is not too late. If Mugabe continues to deploy terror in order to cling to power, Mbeki has at least prepared the ground so that he can say he was patient, gave Mugabe every chance and was not precipitate in turning to stronger action to bring Mugabe to heel. As the current chairman of the Commonwealth, Mbeki should warn now that, if the Commonwealth decides that the elections have not been free and fair, South Africa will consider a range of sanctions against Mugabe's government. He should not worry if Mugabe attacks him. Let him shout, his voice no longer matters. Mbeki must be aware that, whatever the outcome of the parliamentary election in Zimbabwe later this month, a funding freeze from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other financial supporters could yet bring Mugabe down. The danger is that it could leave a lingering image of President Mbeki holding hands in public with a tyrant who has been disgraced and reviled around the world.