Constructive Engagement

Ill-informed calumny is an occupational hazard for practitioners of constructive engagement if they fail, as they often will, to gratify quickly. Calumny because they will very likely be seen as supping with the devil; ill-informed because constructive engagement entails quiet diplomacy and the use of public statements less to inform than to manipulate.

I have no inside knowledge of President Mbeki’s constructive engagement with President Mugabe and his securocrats.  I did however spend five years reporting on Dr Chester Crocker’s constructive engagement with South Africa’s ancien regime to secure Namibian independence.

In Crocker, I saw a master at work, and watched him calumnied and traduced at almost every step. Indeed, I joined in the calumny myself from time to time in a journalist’s frustration at not being privy to his every play.  But finally I was there in the UN Security Council chamber in late 1988 to witness his perseverance pay off: Angolans, South Africans, Namibians, Cubans and Russians all falling like silver balls into the slots of a child’s puzzle.

For all the opprobrium heaped on him, Crocker no more liked or sought to prolong apartheid than Mbeki reveres or seeks to protect Mugabe.  Of that I am certain, unless the huge corpus of Mbeki’s speeches and letters available on the Internet is all persiflage and cant. Mugabe and his praetorians stand athwart Mbeki’s vision of a new, globally respected Africa, screaming “Halt!”

Moving them aside requires diplomacy. Successful diplomacy is not about the pious airing of personal opinions or the strutting of moral postures.    It is about getting intransigent people with non-negotiable positions to do what you want without a fight.  Once you fall back on harsh language without the legions to back it up, you’ve essentially admitted defeat.

An analogy is hostage negotiation. The job of the negotiator is to win the hostage taker’s trust. To that end, the negotiator may have to stroke the bad guy’s ego and say things like “there is no crisis”.

South Africa is to the rest of Africa as the US is to the Caribbean and Latin America. Mbeki is surely determined not to make the same mistakes as the US, which over the years has made many.  One of Washington’s great mistakes has been its policy toward Cuba, as much America’s neighbor as Zimbabwe is South Africa’s, even if the Florida Straits are a little wider than the Limpopo. For nearly half a century, until his recent retirement, Fidel Castro stymied one US administration after another by turning American hostility and sanctions into the glue that held his revolution together.

If the US with its overwhelming supremacy in treasure and military power was unable to overthrow Castro, by what logic should the US, or anyone, demand that Mbeki topple Mugabe or blame Mbeki because Mugabe remains in power. Perhaps if, from the outset, the US had been able to rally the whole Western Hemisphere against Castro, his revolution might have been stopped or undone. But Washington preferred unilateral force – the Bay of Pigs, CIA plots – and sanctions which helped Castro justify the deprivation his utopia entailed.

Mbeki, by contrast, has been working for a united African front, starting with SADC, to back the notion that Zimbabwe’s people must be permitted to express their will without fear or fraud, and have their will respected.  The MDC itself openly admits that the “Mbeki factor” was a key to the ZANU concessions that made possible relatively fair elections on March 29 – elections in which the governing party itself initially admitted it had come in second.

Right now, I suspect we are dealing with a quiet coup and that the shots are being called by less by Mugabe himself than by his securocrats. Exactly what pressure can be brought on these gentlemen to get them to call off their thugs and behave? Epithets?  Sanctions? What deprivation would sanctions add to what has been inflicted by Mugabe himself already, especially with various, less squeamish powers, filling ZANU’s coffers.

Some  worry that Mbeki’s real game plan is to keep ZANU in power, but under new and better management, and to hell, therefore, with the will of Zimbabweans if, as seems to be the case, they  prefer the MDC and Morgan Tsvangirai.

That, if true, would be hard to defend.

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