Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the 84 year old despot of Zimbabwe, has lead his country to ruin.
Yet despite his obvious and complete failure he is sustained in office by two things: the first is his own belief that he is not just the administrator of Zimbabwe, but is some real sense its owner.
His sense of entitlement is rooted in his own measure of the struggle that brought majority rule to the country in 1980. No matter that the portly Joshua Nkomo was a better known figure internationally; he was an Ndebele and Mugabe- who loathed Nkomo with a passion- always knew that the larger Shona, of which he was himself a part, would have the decisive influence in the new state. Just to make sure, of course Mugabe unleashed his death squads in Matebeleland- crushing any resistance from Nkomo's ZIPRA, the armed wing of his ZAPU party, which had been the partner of Mugabe's own ZANU in the Patriotic Front. Nkomo died in 1999 having been forced to merge his own party into ZANU to form ZANU-PF. Of all the other leaders of the struggle for majority rule in Zimababwe, the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole died in 2000 and Edgar Tekere was politically discredited by his indictment for the murder of a white farmer, Gerald Adams in 1980. Mugabe truly believes that Zimbabwe is his and belongs to no-one else- he has no rivals, and will brook no rivalry.
The second pillar of support that Mugabe has is the willingness of the neighbouring states, especially South Africa, to be complicit in their support for him. Amongst the activists of the ANC there remains a sense of gratitude for the support they gained from Harare in the years leading up to the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid. Many still see Mugabe as part of their own liberation struggle- especially Thabo Mbeki, whose own father, Govan Mbeki as a fellow Communist was a staunch admirer of Mugabe. Thus, the silence from the South African President- and by contrast the strong support that his bitter rival, Jacob Zuma, has given to the Zimbabwean Movement for Democratic change. This support, while significant, is as much a function of South African domestic politics as it is of any real drive for change in South Africa's northern neighbour.
On March 29th, the people of Zimbabwe, despite elections where everything possible was done to favour the ZANU-PF candidates, chose to support the Movement for Democratic Change. Despite unfair media coverage, fraudulent votes and all the rest of it, the anger of the Zimbabwean people against their incompetent and brutal leaders was such that ZANU-PF were defeated in local elections and in the National Assembly. It seems very clear that Robert Mugabe himself was defeated in the Presidential elections.
Over the past two weeks, the government has refused to accept defeat. Mugabe can literally not believe that the people would prefer anyone without the history of armed struggle to be their leader. The government now plans to delay things still further- first to recount the vote, then to try for a re-run of the first vote- with even more violence and intimidation- and only as a last resort to go to a run-off. Mugabe still believes that the Presidency is his by right and that no one else can take it away- least of all the MDC who might- heaven forbid- try to roll-back some of Mugabe's catastrophic economic policies.
Mugabe has increased violence- sending the twenty and thirty year olds he claims to be veterans of the war that ended in 1980 to evict the few remaining white farmers and ending the last slim chance of any kind of recovery; threatening the ZEC officials and attacking his political rivals. So dangerous is the current position that Morgan Tsvangirai has left the country, hoping as a side effect to personally convince the leaders of Zimabwe's neighbours face to face. Yet Thabo Mbeki refused to meet him, even if Jacob Zuma and Ian a Seretse Khama of Botswana were more supportive.
Mugabe's obsession for power is so deep rooted and- in his view- unchallengeable, that he would rather Zimbabwe was destroyed than that he should hand over power. Yet, perhaps as an old man he might reflect that violence can work both ways, and that if he will not go quietly, there may be those, even close to him who will- quite literally- wield the knife.
Yet at the end of the day the only figure who can deny Mugabe his Manichean obsession for destruction or death is the President of South Africa. He alone has both the influence and the power to liberate Zimbabwe from its tyrant. Unless he chooses to do so, the destruction of the once prosperous and beloved land will become more complete: and the scale could indeed rival Rwanda. Yet Mbeki's record is not good. his quixotic denial of medical evidence on HIV/AIDS, and his occasionally authoritarian statements have not inspired confidence in South African democracy. The monolithic ANC remains rooted- like Mugabe- in its Communist past.
The violence across Zimbabwe is tragic for those who believed in the idea of African freedom- it could be the death knell of specifically South African freedom too. Will President Mbeki speak? Or, will he pass by the other side and leave the abject people of his northern neighbour to rot- with significant consequences inside South Africa itself? The next few days will prove that the situation is not, as Mbeki contends "Manageable".
As blood flows more copiously in Zimbabwe, will the Hamlet of Union Buildings in Pretoria not feel not feel the smallest hint of a bad conscience- because he should.
For those of us watching across the world, will we not feel a slight frisson of fear for the future of South Africa- because, if that country fails this test because of some misplaced camaraderie with Mugabe- we should.