Mission impossible

South Africa has misdiagnosed the reason for Zimbabwe's plight and its rescue is bound to fail, says Iden Wetherell.

South African ministers believe they can save Zimbabwe. In fact it is their duty to do so, they say. "If Zimbabwe's economy fails, all its problems will be transferred to South Africa," Trevor Manuel explained to the SABC recently. "It needs all the support it can get." In the same breath he confessed to being perplexed by negative investor sentiment towards South Africa despite its sound fundamentals. What explains this cognitive dissonance? Very simply the South African leadership has chosen to deceive itself about the nature of the problem in Zimbabwe and is unable to cope with the consequences of its misdiagnosis.

Meeting at the Victoria Falls in April, regional heads of state agreed with President Robert Mugabe's contention that the crisis in Zimbabwe was the product of recalcitrant white farmers blocking his government's "historic mission" to rectify anomalies in the pattern of land ownership. The leaders called on Britain to honour its commitments to Zimbabwe made at the Lancaster House constitutional talks in 1979 and again at the Harare donors' conference on land in September 1998.

This position was repeated in Windhoek in August when Southern African Development Community leaders backed Mugabe's land claims and tasked presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Bakili Mulusi of Malawi to go to London and persuade the British to part with their money. That quest is doomed to the same fate as Mbeki's other self-appointed missions to secure funds for Mugabe which have seen him already approach Britain, as well as the United States, Norway and Saudi Arabia. All these potential donors have given him the same reply: there will be no money forthcoming until the rule of law is restored in Zimbabwe and land reform proceeds within the framework of the 1998 donor accords. Contrary to the carefully nurtured illusion of regional leaders that Britain is blocking progress, the Zimbabwe government has long-since discarded the 1998 agreements because they required transparency and stakeholder involvement. Instead, Mugabe chose the path of arbitrary confiscation dignified by a law rejected by voters in a February referendum on constitutional reform and again at the June parliamentary poll where voters gave an unambiguous thumbs down to Mugabe's grandstanding on land.

Although his Zanu-PF party won a slim margin of seats in the June parliamentary election - after a campaign of unprecedented intimidation - it failed to secure a majority of votes. The government has proceeded regardless to acquire 65 per cent of the country's commercial farms. The land acquisition and resettlement process is managed by Zanu-PF with war veterans, who have been illegally occupying over a thousand farms since February, playing a leading role.

As a result farm labourers, perceived as opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters, have been dispossessed together with their white employers while the beneficiaries of the scheme are exclusively ruling party members.

The depositing of 500,000 families without capital, skills or implements on vast swathes of Zimbabwe's agricultural interior is already having serious consequences for the environment, particularly trees and wildlife. Equally seriously, it has led to a marked decline in the production of tobacco and horticulture, which are major foreign exchange earners. Tourists have been scared off by the violence unleashed by Mugabe's militias and the devastation wrought on once prime wilderness areas such as the Save Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe's southern lowveld where war veterans have encouraged neighbouring villagers to poach game. This has hit foreign currency earnings which has led in turn to fuel and power shortages.

Presiding over this economic disaster is a cabinet hailed by Mugabe at the time of its appointment in July as bringing "new thinking" to bear on the myriad problems the country faces. It certainly includes younger, business-oriented members such as finance minister Simba Makoni and trade minister Nkosana Moyo. But the government is answerable, not to parliament with its robust opposition presence, but to the Stalinist politburo which is hand-picked by Mugabe. It is therefore open to question how the "new-look" cabinet with its so-called technocrats can tackle Zimbabwe's deep-seated problems when the author of the country's misfortunes continues to exercise absolute power through instruments tailored in the 1980s for a one-party dictatorship

Facing a presidential poll in 2002 which he has not yet said he won't contest, and anyway wishing to be remembered as the benefactor of the rural poor, Mugabe is inclined to use all means of persuasion at his disposal including war veterans prepared to bludgeon opposition supporters.

Nevertheless, the South African government continues to insist that Zimbabwe's problems are colonial in nature and therefore amenable to negotiable solutions. This presents a conundrum. How will Pretoria play its role in terms of economic support while international donors, who like the MDC see the problem as essentially one of governance, sit on their hands because Mugabe is sabotaging the agricultural foundations on which the rest of the economy is built?

After a meeting in Harare with their South African counterparts at the beginning of August, Makoni and Moyo were invited to Pretoria to negotiate trade and credit agreements. These were seen as part of an interlocking process. Mbeki and his officials would open the way for Zimbabwe's international rehabilitation and International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans while Mugabe undertook to restore the rule of law on the land.

Zimbabwean ministers claim that is being done. The designation of over 3,000 farms has been carried out in accordance with the new land acquisition law promulgated by decree under the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act and an accompanying constitutional amendment declaring Britain responsible for compensation forced through parliament immediately ahead of the June election. Zanu-PF lost the two-thirds majority required for such amendments in the election.
The confiscation of productive land to propitiate ruling-party supporters whose violent occupations the president has endorsed, without any consultation with stakeholders and at enormous cost to the economy, is certain to prevent a resumption of IMF support. Furthermore, by signalling to the world that the region supports a policy of lawlessness and extortion because it can be justified by history, Southern African leaders are in effect telling investors to stay away.

The people of Zimbabwe, in two democratic verdicts this year, have rejected Mugabe's arbitrary approach to land acquisition and his disastrous economic management. Ignoring those outcomes and expressing solidarity with a leader who holds his own laws in contempt could explain why Trevor Manuel is having problems with market sentiment.