To understand what President Mbeki is trying to pull off in Zimbabwe you have to read his essay on PW Botha when the Groot Krokodil died.
In his Letter from the President of November 9, 2006 (am I alone in missing his missives?), Mbeki credited Botha with “having opened the door to the liquidation of the inhuman system of apartheid to whose construction and defence he had dedicated his life”. He ended, astonishingly, by putting Botha on the same plinth as Oliver Tambo. “Of them we can say…that they were partners in the creation of the peace of the brave that is our blessing.”
Apartheid was a crime against humanity – a crime whose enormity Mbeki himself had felt as personally as any human being can, in the loss of a child. Yet here he was, paying tribute to a man widely depicted, like Robert Mugabe today, as one of the most virulent monsters of his time.
In 1986, Mbeki recalled, Botha agreed to roll back the Pass Laws, the Mixed Marriages Act and the ban on multiracial political parties. For many in the ANC, the reforms were cosmetic, but not, Mbeki stressed, for Nelson Mandela. To him they were “a strong message that PW Botha represented more than the rather negative image…conveyed by the media here and abroad…He refused to be told by the media that to engage PW…would constitute a fruitless exercise.”
Likewise, Mbeki himself has long refused to be told by anyone that it is fruitless to engage Mugabe and the Harare junta, or to accept that there is anything to be gained by demonizing them, however wicked their behaviour may be. And Mbeki knows it’s wicked.
The only way forward, in Zimbabwe today as in South Africa in 20 years ago, is for the parties to talk and find a path to national reconciliation. Shepherded by Mbeki, that is happening. For it to succeed will require a readiness to look past the horrors perpetrated by the incumbent regime, examine their motivation and ultimately forgive.
In his tribute to PW, Mbeki decried the obscenities committed under apartheid but was able to see the world from Botha’s point of view. “Honestly and unapologetically he believed…he was acting in defense of the very survival of the Afrikaner people”. The ANC would find ways to accommodate that concern, as the MDC must now find ways to address the guilty fears of the junta.
It will be said, of course, that it was external pressure that forced PW Botha to open the door, so Mbeki is wrong to oppose further sanctions on the junta as negotiations get under way. Interestingly, Mbeki made no mention of sanctions or outside pressure as a factor in Botha’s becoming a partner for peace. He attributed it rather to the recognition of a common destiny, for good or ill: Botha and his fellow broederbonders concluded that “if all political formations in our country did not agree on its post-apartheid future by 1990, we would all be faced with… violent racial conflagration.”
Sanctions or no, the broeders knew apartheid had reached a dead end. The only people they could turn to for help were their South African brothers and sisters, whom they were finally obliged to recognize as such. So it is for the junta. Mugabe and his gang are out of options. No one in Africa, or beyond, is coming to their rescue. Only Zimbabweans can save them, which is as it should be. Mbeki has seen to that.
Two last points. First, the humanity and greatness of heart that shine through Mbeki’s letter on Botha, and a companion essay on Adriaan Vlok washing Rev Frank Chikane’s feet, are what get me up every morning to plead South Africa’s cause, for these are national traits.
Second, how is it just to laud Mandela for advocating forgiveness as the path to national reconciliation when the offensive regime was white, but to castigate Mbeki for doing to same when the dictatorship is black?