SA should be ready to help, but must not intervene in a problem Zimbabwe has to solve itself
Zimbabwe, the running sore that's pretty much been left alone to fester for almost two decades, is once again threatening to become a tinderbox that could explode, shattering the relative calm in the region.
SA, the big brother in the south, already home to thousands of Zimbabwe's huddled masses fleeing the accursed generosity of its leaders, is being implored to intervene. It should stay its hand.
Zimbabwe, we often forget, is not SA's 10th province. Nor are we its nanny. It is an autonomous state; its people should be free to chart their own course. Not that we should be indifferent. As neighbours, we cannot but be concerned because any instability in Zimbabwe has social and political consequences for SA, with many fleeing either political persecution or, as economic migrants, being driven out by the dire state of affairs in their country.
Pretoria's intervention thus far has worsened the situation. Our leaders seem incapable of intervening on the side of those who are being persecuted. They charge in at the slightest sign of conflict to save the skins of their fellow leaders.
Also, intervention tends to create a convenient scapegoat in the event of things going wrong. The locals have somebody, the odious foreigner, to blame for their misfortune. They should be allowed to be the authors of their own fate. SA needs a new way of dealing with Zimbabwe. What has gone before has obviously not worked; if anything, it's added fuel to the fire.
What is now required is not intervention, but assistance.
SA's relatively peaceful transition, the fact that it was able to dodge the bullet when many thought it was destined for civil war, gave it a sort of cachet, a prestige, in Africa. Although a new kid on the block, so to speak, it could dole out advice on democracy to a continent that has long struggled on that front. Its effort to heal the wounds of the past and unite its people in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission experiment has been taken up by countries as diverse as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Philippines, Ghana and the Gambia. Advising other African countries on how to conduct elections has almost become part of the mandate of its electoral commission.
Although many African countries were happy to bask in the reflected glory of SA's transition - and they had every right to as they had contributed to its liberation - they didn't take too kindly to what they considered an upstart lecturing them about their internal affairs. Initially SA, especially during the early days of Nelson Mandela's administration, naively thought it could sculpt Africa in its own image or help it to move in a similar direction.
But Mandela was soon to hit a brick wall, not only among African dictators, but among his own comrades in the ANC, many of whom had spent their exile years in various African countries and considered some leaders as friends or acquaintances.
When Mandela angrily scolded former Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha for the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni environmental activist, he found no support within the ANC. As far as his party comrades were concerned, Mandela was making much ado about nothing. The thinking was that SA, still wet behind the ears when it came to diplomacy, needed to make friends, not enemies, especially in Africa.
It was a collision of two ideologies - those who believe SA should always be true to its own value system in pursuit of its foreign policy, and those keen only to make friends and not interfere in the affairs of other countries.
But it was nearer home, in Zimbabwe, where South African diplomacy was to truly flounder. Robert Mugabe was a cult hero among black South Africans, whose cause he courageously championed during the dark days of apartheid. He was therefore regarded with some reverence by SA's new leadership. All went swimmingly until Mugabe got into trouble at home.
He probably would have been removed from power had then-president Thabo Mbeki and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Mbeki's foreign minister, not come to his rescue when he suffered a crushing defeat in a referendum to amend the constitution almost 20 years ago. It was after that near-death experience that Mugabe embarked on his ruinous land expropriation policy, which turned Zimbabwe into a basket case and drove thousands of its people across the Limpopo.
What still sticks in the craw for many Zimbabweans is the arrangement concocted by Mbeki 10 years ago to keep Mugabe in power despite the fact that he had been defeated by Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
When Mugabe was finally turfed out of power by the military more than a year ago, Zimbabweans celebrated as though it was the Second Coming. The fact that soldiers had interfered in the democratic process didn't seem to matter. What was important was that they had finally got rid of Mugabe. And they had done it themselves without any outside help or interference.
Those who pointed out that Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man who succeeded Mugabe, had been his right-hand man all along and was linked with all his dastardly deeds, especially the killing of thousands of civilians in Matabeleland in the 1980s, were firmly told to mind their own business.
But old habits die hard. Nationwide protests, provoked by the overnight doubling of the fuel price, have met the usual thuggish response from the security forces, resulting in deaths and injuries.
Some are calling for SA to gallop to the rescue. Cooler heads should prevail. Any instability in Zimbabwe will unavoidably be felt by or in SA. But this country should desist from jumping in as though it has all the answers. It should instead stand ready to assist, but give Zimbabweans the space to solve their own problems.