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27.03.2007 General News

Why Mbeki is the true heir to Thatcher

By Rageh Omaar-New Statesman

Story by Rageh Omaar

Margaret Thatcher opposed sanctions in South Africa now Thabo Mbeki is doing the same for today's tyranny in Zimbabwe.

In the late 1980s, as the international campaign for sanctions against South Africa was gaining ground, Peter Hain and Robert Mugabe found themselves on the same side of the barricades. Politically and morally, they were as one on seeking to bring down the apartheid state in South Africa.

These were the years of the "township wars”, where, almost every night, television news images of the police shooting and beating ANC protesters were seen around the world.

It was Margaret Thatcher who made the most consistent case against the imposition of sanctions. She argued that the ANC was a terrorist organisation and that sanctions would mainly end up hurting black South Africans and South Africa"s neighbouring frontline states.

It seems almost impossible to believe it now, but one of the most dignified voices providing the counter-argument was Mugabe's. He offered ANC exiles not only a place of refuge, but also military and political aid.

He said Zimbabweans and other black Africans would be prepared to eat just one meal of maize porridge a day if that helped liberate South Africans from tyranny.

Twenty years on, South Africa is free and prosperous, Peter Hain is a member of the British cabinet, and Zimbabwe is a desperate and brutal tyranny. As a Foreign Office minister, Hain led Britain's ill-advised attempts to bring pressure to bear on Mugabe's government at the height of the seizure of white-owned land in 2001-2002, only for new Labour to give up and leave the fight against Mugabe to others.

This was a sensible decision. Others, notably the African Union and South Africa, the continent's superpower, had much greater leverage.

Mugabe's introduction of the race card was cynical, but effective. White farmers had certainly had it too good and they owned a disproportionate share of land.

But this wasn't why they were singled out for attack. The reason was that many white farmers supported the new opposition Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai. Destroying the farmers was intended not only to destroy a source of support and funding for the MDC; it would teach a lesson to any other group thinking of opposing the ruling Zanu-PF party.

The strategy was clever because it suggested that the British, American and European condemnation of Zimbabwe was intrinsically white and neocolonial. The insinuation that “they're only making a fuss because whites are involved” was corrosive. Yet it was also not without foundation if you looked at other crises on the continent.

Its effect on South Africa was the most shocking and debilitating. No other figure in the world wields as much influence over the Mugabe reg ime as President Thabo Mbeki. Loans for fuel, electricity and food, and the ability to hurt the private business interests of leading Zanu-PF officials, are just some of the trump cards Mbeki holds.

Yet the ever increasing horrors facing ordinary Zimbabweans, and the now blatant violence shown by Mugabe's government, are still not enough to prompt Mbeki into action.

The real reason, which again stems from Mugabe's political acumen, is that land is even more of an explosive issue in South Africa, where more white farmers have been killed over the past four years than in Zimbabwe.

It is one of the most viscerally potent legacies of the apartheid era, when thousands of black families were thrown off their land. The ANC leadership has changed in the years since it came to power. It is no longer based in the townships or the provincial cities.

As ministers, ambassadors and captains of industry, the people at the heart of the ANC leadership inhabit a more privileged place. This is partly why they are so sensitive to Mugabe's demagogic rages about pushing the whites off the land by force, and kicking foreign (meaning white) meddlers out of the country.

None of this should prevent Mbeki from taking action. Zimbabwe is an open wound for Africa. The rates of HIV infection are one of the highest in the world.

The country is now perilously short of food. The effects of malnutrition on hundreds of thousands of already sick people can be seen in the mortuaries in rural parts of the country. But, of course, we don't seen this because there are no television cameras.

There is also a growing sense of shame and embarrassment at the creation of another buffoon-like caricature of an African dictator, a successor to Idi Amin. That, in itself, is terrible for African diplomacy and pride.

Zimbabwe is a disgraceful stain on President Mbeki and the South African government. Who would have thought they would now find themselves parroting the kind of excuses which Thatcher made about South Africa 20 years ago: that to impose sanctions would hurt only black Africans.

Many Zimbabweans ate one meal a day to help end oppression in South Africa. It seems that there are those in South Africa's government who aren't interested in reciprocating.