Action on Zimbabwe

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

SOUTHERN AFRICAN leaders at last have demonstrated a willingness to confront the ongoing political crisis in Zimbabwe, as well as its instigator, Robert Mugabe. Ironically, the impetus for action came from China, one of the autocrat's best friends.

Late last week, a Chinese ship appeared in the South African port of Durban bearing a huge load of arms for Zimbabwe's regime: 3 million rounds of assault rifle ammunition, 3,000 mortar rounds and 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades. South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has shamelessly coddled Mr. Mugabe, did nothing to stop the shipment. But South Africa's democracy has begun to work against his loathsome policy. A newspaper published details of the cargo. Dockworkers refused to unload it. Public interest groups obtained a court order barring the weapons' transit.

The Chinese ship duly sailed to Mozambique, a neighbor of South Africa and Zimbabwe. But there, too, it was refused a dock. With the encouragement of the Bush administration, Angola joined the boycott this week. By yesterday morning, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman was obliged to announce that the ship "is now considering carrying back this cargo" to China. She also claimed the shipment was "normal trade in military products" -- a description that unintentionally spoke volumes about Beijing's amoral policy of supplying weapons to Zimbabwe, Sudan and other repugnant regimes.

Ten days ago, the Southern African Development Community was unable to agree on any direct criticism of Mr. Mugabe, much less on any action to pressure him to respect the results of the election he lost more than three weeks ago. The boycott of the ship, which was also supported by the community's current president, Zambia, was an important step in the right direction. So were the comments of Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa's ruling party and a likely successor to the lame-duck Mr. Mbeki. In Berlin yesterday, Mr. Zuma said, "We speak out to promote democracy. . . . [A]s all democrats know, no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people." Mr. Zuma told the Reuters news agency that "African countries should identify some people to go in" to Zimbabwe in an attempt to resolve the crisis.

Such intervention -- as opposed to the sham "mediation" of Mr. Mbeki -- is long overdue. Zimbabweans want it: The country's church leaders issued a joint statement yesterday saying that international action was needed to stop Mr. Mugabe's violent campaign to overturn the election results by beating, abducting and murdering opposition supporters across the country. The 84-year-old strongman pays no heed to Western governments, which long ago used up most of their available sanctions against his regime. If Zimbabwe is to be rescued, it must be by its fellow Africans. Turning around the ship was a start; now African leaders must focus their efforts on turning out Mr. Mugabe.

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