South Africa’s self-deprecating silence in the face of Zimbabwe’s escalating contempt is defining the Mbeki government’s Africa policy. As despotic leader Robert Mugabe continues his catastrophic dictatorship in Zimbabwe and puts the South African government in increasingly difficult positions, Pretoria continues to respond with its ineffectual “quiet diplomacy.” That policy is becoming a national embarrassment for South Africa.
On Tuesday, Zimbabwe’s immigration officers seized 13 members of an influential South African trade union as they met with counterparts in Harare, the capital. They were ordered to leave the country. Yesterday, they were deported.
The outrageous move was even opposed by Zimbabwe’s High Court, which Mr. Mugabe largely controls. The court blocked the deportation until the government could present a valid reason for their removal. Unsurprisingly, the government simply said they never received the order and forcibly removed the South Africans, loading them onto buses and dumping them on the border.
Considering the many times that South Africa has turned a blind eye to Mr. Mugabe’s transgressions against his own people, it was truly amazing to see the Zimbabwean leader mistreat the South African delegation. The trade union had intended to meet with civic, church and human-rights groups, including the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and Zimbabwe’s Council of Churches. The Zimbabwe government initially tried to block the visit, and later granted a one-day visa. The Congress of the South African Trade Unions said in a statement that their delegates were in a “totally peaceful” meeting with a Zimbabwe trade union when they were detained.
Amazingly, South Africa made excuses for the Mugabe government. “What Zimbabwe did was to invite them out,” South African Foreign Minister Stan Mudenge said yesterday on the radio in South Africa. “There is no souring of relations between Pretoria and Harare because these people decided to do their own thing against the laws of South Africa and against the laws of Zimbabwe.”
What is evident is that the Mugabe government ignored the court order barring the deportation. South Africa, one of Africa’s most important power brokers, should begin standing up for justice and democracy in Africa. The government’s rhetorical contortions for the sake of Mr. Mugabe are becoming a stain on the nation and a misfortune for the continent.