South Africa's Moral Blind Spot

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When it comes to twisting the arm of Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe, there's probably only one person with the muscle to do it: South African President Thabo Mbeki.

And twist he must, for Mr. Mugabe is running his country into the ground. Triple-digit inflation, a jobless rate of over 70 percent, severe hunger and fuel problems, political oppression, and a cruel urban relocation scheme have created a human rights disaster.

Mr. Mbeki has considerable leverage with his neighbor. South Africa is Zimbabwe's largest trading partner, and the two leaders share a bond in having thrown off white rule, but Mbeki embraced democracy while Mugabe did not.

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The head-shaking reality is that Mbeki is not using his leverage and moral standing. Instead, he's pursued a course of "quiet diplomacy" that's nothing more than a whisper, judging by the results. A more vigorous approach, with South Africa ready to give a $1 billion loan to Zimbabwe, would be to demand economic and political reforms. Any such incentive may lack force, though. Mugabe, who just closed an economic deal with China, may feel he can afford to spurn loans with unwelcome conditions.

A whole host of reasons explain Mbeki's reticence. His neighbor may be a despot at the helm of a failing country, but he's a hero to many South Africans for getting whites out of government and off farmland.

Mbeki's African National Congress party also has serious reservations about the effectiveness of Zimbabwe's political opposition. And South African businesses prefer the great mining deals they're getting in Zimbabwe.

But every passing day makes these reasons look like excuses. A new UN report found that Mugabe's recent slum-clearing (i.e. opposition clearing) has left 700,000 people homeless. Parallels between a world that stood by during so many years of apartheid, and one that's standing by now, are plain.

The UN Security Council is under pressure to meet regarding the report. But as with Darfur, where China has oil interests, it's hard to imagine Beijing backing UN intervention in Zimbabwe, where China has mining interests. That puts pressure on Africa for a home-grown solution - to alleviate the suffering in Zimbabwe, but also to ease Mugabe's exit.

If it's African cover that Mbeki needs, he's got the UN report - produced by a Tanzanian. And he should turn for help to Nigeria's president Olusegun Obasanjo, a Mugabe critic.

If he could find the moral courage he summoned to fight apartheid, Mbeki could use these two African levers, as well as his own weight and that of Zimbabwe's neighbors, to bring Mugabe to the negotiating table.

Delay just prolongs the despot's day of reckoning.

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