South Africa could have saved Zimbabwe, but chose not to

Former senior US State dept official, William M. Bellamy, says Mbeki govt threw Mugabe a lifeline in 2002 and after

Remarks by Ambassador (ret) William M. Bellamy at a panel discussion with David Coltart on his book The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe, The Cato Institute, Washington DC, April 25, 2016

I am very honored to be here today. I first met David Coltart 31 years ago in Bulawayo, shortly after I arrived as a junior member of the US Embassy staff in Harare. I think that time frame is about page 160 or 170 in David’s chronicle, and it was a dark time as David so vividly describes. I didn’t fully appreciate that darkness then, nor did the US Embassy nor the US government. I’ll talk more about our blindness in a moment.

David’s book is many things. It is a gripping narrative, especially for anyone who has lived through or followed closely the Zimbabwean tragedy of this past half century. It is also rich in insights that help us understand contemporary Zimbabwe. And it is a cautionary tale as well, with relevance well beyond Zimbabwe. Anyone worried about the rollback of democratic gains around the world today would do well to study Robert Mugabe’s practice of this dark art. David’s book gives us a good picture of the master tyrant at work, indeed, at age 91, still at work.

David’s book is above all an exercise in truth telling. It is about bearing witness, establishing an historical record, staking a claim to facts and putting them in context. It is not about assigning blame. Although it’s pretty clear who the culpable parties are time and again, we see how hard it often is to fix precise responsibility for killings, disappearances, massacres and mass atrocities. When justice is not available, we realize in reading David’s account how critical it is to at least fix terrible events in our collective memory as real, undeniable and something we must continue to reckon with.

This is a deeply personal book, written with modesty and humility. David has lived an extraordinary life in extraordinary times. It is easy to describe him as heroic. But that is not the story he tells. He writes instead about his doubts, misgivings and miscalculations, all of which make his achievements even more remarkable. I found myself frequently asking, what motivated him to take so many risks in pursuit of justice in Zimbabwe? It certainly wasn’t ambition, fame or wealth. It was, I think a sense of moral duty.

Several themes stood out for me in David’s book.

One of these was ZANU’s use of terror as an instrument of power. Terror was central to ZANU’s strategy as liberation movement, but also its consolidation of power as ruling party and its creation of a de facto one party state. Much can be said about ZANU’s use of terror; that it was decisive in keeping an increasingly discredited ruling party in power for more than thirty years cannot be denied.

The rule of law was one of the few defenses Zimbabweans had against this terror, and it was a shaky defense at best. David and his colleagues used every available legal avenue to blunt ZANU onslaughts. And in a legal system that had not yet been completely corrupted by the ruling party, they won victories. But the erosion of the rule of law was unstoppable after 2000.

David recounts moments when he felt the rule of law had vanished completely. Interestingly, David notes that the erosion actually began when white governments severely curtailed civil liberties under a series of emergency laws prior to independence.

Those same restrictive laws were enthusiastically embraced and applied by ZANU where it came to power. David notes the historic blunder of Ian Smith and his followers at Lancaster House where they insisted that certain white privileges be inserted into the new constitution but did little to ensure the new constitution contained basic safeguards of the rights of all Zimbabweans.

A third theme of special interest in David’s book is the reminder that disregard for human rights is really the canary in the coal mine when in comes to detecting serious threats to democracy. White Zimbabweans surrendered their civil liberties to the Smith regime in the 1960s and 1970s. They never got them back. The international community largely overlooked mass atrocities in Zimbabwe in the 1980s. That sent a message of impunity to ZANU.

David warned in the 1990s that the continuing erosion of the rule of law threatened Zimbabwe’s economy and future democratic prospects. He was proved right a few years later when Mugabe unleashed the full force of the ruling party and state on the Movement for Democratic Change and other political opponents.

Finally, David’s book reminded me of the role international actors have played in Zimbabwe’s modern history. The idea that somehow there was nothing the international community could do to end or at least moderate Mugabe’s depredations just doesn’t stand up when looked at historically.

Ian Smith was as stubborn a leader as Mugabe ever was, yet when South African Prime Minister John Vorster pulled the plug on Rhodesia, Smith knew it was “game over.” He knew then he could not hold out for long, never mind the 1000 years he’d promised his white supporters.

Robert Mugabe had never seen a compromise he couldn’t say “no” to until he got to the Lancaster House talks in 1980 and was finally told by Kenneth Kaunda and Samora Machel: “Comrade, here’s the deal. You will sign.” And he did. That international pressure shaped Zimbabwe future profoundly.

Since then, unfortunately, the international community has mostly failed Zimbabwe. I was a small part of that failure in the mid 1980s when the US government did not fully appreciate the extent of atrocities that had occurred in Matabeleland (which David and his colleagues later so bravely catalogued.). The truth is, we didn’t really want to know.

We wanted to celebrate Zimbabwe’s transition to independence, to extol is its vast economic potential, to hold it up as a counter-example to apartheid South Africa. Looking back, I realize now that we were also happy overall at the state of race relations, at the fact that white Zimbabweans, those that had stayed, were mostly loyal and doing well and providing the capital and know how Zimbabwe needed to develop.

And if white farmers were being killed by dissidents in Matabeleland who were supported by the apartheid regime, then perhaps it was understandable that tough measure were adopted by Harare.

We were not sufficiently mindful of the canary in the coal mine.

The real international failure in Zimbabwe is more recent however. David alludes to it, but I would be even more blunt. By 2002 it was clear that a majority of Zimbabweans wanted change, had voted for it, had risked their lives for it. And the change they called for was in all respects congruent with the liberal democratic values we hold dear.

A number of African states, including some of Zimbabwe’s neighbors, sympathized strongly with this sentiment. The US, the UK, the EU, Commonwealth members also called for more pressure on Mugabe to respect the rule of law and acknowledge the will of the electorate. I remember this well as I was a senior US official and part of this lobbying effort.

South Africa was not prepared to go along. It preferred a tactic of quiet diplomacy. This gave Mugabe the protection he needed to continue business as usual. The opportunity to press for peaceful change was missed in 2002, and it was missed repeatedly thereafter as Western powers continued to urge action on Zimbabwe and South Africa resisted.

There is no doubt whatsoever that at several junctures after 2002, the right South African moves could have galvanized international support to end the violent stalemate in Zimbabwe. It was never that difficult. A free and fair election under strict international supervision was all that was needed. Zimbabwe’s tragedy is that it never happened. As long as South Africa shielded Zimbabwe from outside pressure, rather than orchestrating such pressure, Mugabe had the lifeline needed.

I should add: this is not David’s argument. It is mine. He might agree with me, but if so he’d probably find a more diplomatic way to put it.

David’s book is a tale of tragedy and woe, but it is also conveys hope. It relates the incredible decency, courage and perseverance of so many ordinary Zimbabweans. That the nation could have survived the political and economic ordeals of the past two decades is itself an indicator of hope.

It may not be easy to see the way ahead in Zimbabwe. But David is right to title his book “The Struggle Continues.” For those who want to know what the next chapter might look like, David’s book is a good place to start. 

William M. Bellamy was U.S. Ambassador to Kenya between 2003 and 2006. Before that he was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (2001–2003) and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (2000–2001).

A full recording of the discussion follows below: