If Zimbabweans expected their country's neighbors to come out strongly against the repressive behavior of their president, Robert Mugabe, at a meeting of regional leaders in Kinshasa this week, then they were sorely mistaken.
Far from criticizing President Mugabe – who unleashed private militias and government security forces against his political rivals before joining a coalition government with them in February – the members of the Southern Africa Development Community instead chose to adopt Mugabe's call for an end to Western sanctions against his country.
SADC's soft approach to Mugabe will come as a stinging disappointment to Mugabe's rival and coalition partner, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who personally lobbied South African President Jacob Zuma to get tougher with Mugabe. Mr. Zuma instead joined the rest of SADC in a warm embrace of the aging leader.
The approach of seeking to bring external pressure to bear on Mugabe is naive, says Steven Friedman, a political analyst and head of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg.
"MDC repeatedly makes the mistake of assuming that their inability to mount sufficient internal pressure will be compensated by external pressure" by groups like SADC, says Mr. Friedman. "The reality is that they're not going to get a decisive push for democracy in Zimbabwe unless there is more coordinated internal pressure inside Zimbabwe."
He adds that the first priority of SADC leaders is to "show solidarity with leaders of other governments."
SADC's decline – and potential revival
Formed specifically so that African leaders could find African solutions for African problems – including solidarity against the racist apartheid government of South Africa – SADC has grown into a kind of Davos summit for the unambitious. Human rights advocates say that by refusing to take hard stands, SADC is missing out on a crucial part of its founding ideals of creating greater social and political justice. But some observers say that SADC is slowly changing, as more and more popularly elected leaders are rubbing shoulders with liberation leaders who gained power through the gun.
"We've seen a subtle shift where people reach positions in government because they were put there, through elections, by a rebellion against the government," says Friedman, noting that long-serving "struggle" leaders like Zimbabwe's Mugabe (29 years) and Angola's Eduardo dos Santos (31 years) are no longer the norm in Southern Africa. "These things don't happen quickly, but there is a relative shift."
The shift may be so subtle that President Mugabe hasn't noticed it. In a speech before an expected visit of European Union diplomats to Zimbabwe, Mugabe lashed out at the European mentality of "bloody whites" who see Africa as their possession.
"Who said the British and the Americans should rule over others? That's why we say down with you. We have not invited these bloody whites. They want to poke their nose into our own affairs. Refuse that," he told members of his ZANU-PF party's youth wing in Harare. "We have stood firm and we have refused to let go. Zimbabwe, sanctions or no sanctions, Zimbabwe remains ours."
Rights groups: SADC must pressure Mugabe
SADC's warm public embrace of Mugabe and its call for an end to sanctions against Zimbabwe caused an uproar among human rights groups, many of which say that continued pressure on Mugabe is crucial for dismantling Mugabe's regime and rebuilding the country.
"Zimbabwe is an African country, and if we talk about African solutions for African problems, does that include human rights?" asks Edith Tsamba, a Zimbabwean human rights activist and member of the African Heritage Society Human Rights Forum in Johannesburg. "Instead of going forward, we seem to be going backward to where we were just a year after liberation. SADC leaders need to ask, 'Can we judge ourselves and really be proud?'"
As an activist in Harare, Ms. Tsamba sheltered hundreds of torture victims in the violent aftermath of the Zimbabwe general elections in March 2008, in which Mugabe's party lost control of Parliament, and Tsvangirai's party claimed victory in the presidential race as well. A political compromise, combining the two rivals into a single government, took the heat out of that violence but failed to bring justice or a sense of security to the hundreds who were tortured and maimed by pro-Mugabe forces, Tsamba says.
To be fair, even Tsvangirai himself has called for a lifting of sanctions, which are specifically targeted against a handful of Zimbabwean leaders and businessmen, and not against Zimbabwe itself. But in lieu of the billions of dollars of reconstruction aid that Tsvangirai requested from Western donor nations, he has only managed to secure a few hundred million in humanitarian aid. Zimbabwe's inflation rate has fallen from 231 million percent to around 1 percent, but the economy remains stagnant, and millions of Zimbabweans remain in a state of chronic malnutrition.
But some political observers say that SADC leaders simply have a firmer grasp on political realities than the West does, and there are signs that SADC is building a unified consensus on how to deal with the Zimbabwe problem pragmatically.
"Look, whether you like Mugabe or not, he is a thug with guns, and you can't wish him away, you have to engage with him and deal with him," says Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. "So how do you get leverage over a thug with guns? That's a dilemma that [former President Thabo] Mbeki faced, and that is a dilemma that Zuma faces today. The only way out of this is a political solution."