Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Zimbabwe’s recent attack on press freedoms and ongoing sham trial of an opposition leader are not only a reaffirmation of the government’s bare-knuckled tendencies, but also a reflection of South Africa’s leadership shortcomings.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, the undisputed power broker of southern Africa, said Sunday that the government of Zimbabwe and its opposition have agreed on an agenda for negotiations geared toward holding parliamentary elections. But Zimbabwe’s justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, said Monday that he didn’t know of any developments regarding talks with the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Surely, Mr. Chinamasa’s public disavowal of Mr. Mbeki’s statement was embarrassing for South Africa. Mr. Mbeki’s reticence to push Zimbabwe even moderately toward law, order and democracy already undermines his government’s clout. It now appears that the Zimbabwean government gave Mr. Mbeki false informationregardingdemocratic developments. Mr. Mbeki’s failure to react to this apparent deception further undermines his credibility.

Organizations in South Africa haven’t been so quiet regarding the transgressions of Zimbabwe’s leader, Robert Mugabe. The General Council of the Bar of South Africa was quick to react to Zimbabwe’s latest attack on press freedoms. The Zimbabwean Supreme Court ruled Thursday that all journalists working without a government-issued license face a mandatory penalty of two years in jail, without review. The South African organizations said the ruling “is not only a blow to freedom of expression, but also to the independence of the judiciary, and is to be doubly deprecated.” The ruling has shut down Zimbabwe’s only independent daily newspaper, the Daily News.

The South African National Editors’ Forum on Sunday echoed those concerns and requested a meeting with the Department of Foreign Affairs to discuss them. But South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was embarrassingly supportive of the court’s ruling.

Meanwhile, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC opposition party, is facing trial (and therefore a death penalty) on treason charges that are, according to serious observers, obviously trumped up. After South Africa’s own struggles with repression and brutality, it seems inconceivable that Mr. Mbeki would stand idly by.

South Africa has maintained strong press freedoms and a vibrant, open debate itself. Its media is a reliable watchdog of the Mbeki and other governments, and it has bolstered accountability in the region. But its routine apologies for Zimbabwe’s wrongs are severely damaging its credibility. Despite all of South Africa’s misplaced support, the government of Zimbabwe has no qualms about publicly embarrassing Mr. Mbeki. What will it take for South Africa to finally change its approach?

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