A common critique of South Africa’s relations with its southern African neighbors has been its tendency to monopolize the attention of the international community. Since even well before 1994, South Africa’s politics, economics, and societal progress have dominated the scant Western news coverage of the African continent. The momentous events that have rocked South Africa's political sphere this past week are well worthy of coverage. Indeed, without the U.S. presidential election circus and financial crisis, they probably would be more prominent. The small Western appetite for African affairs however, seems to have settled on the Mbeki drama as its sole sustenance. Zimbabwe's landmark power-sharing deal has been swept off the headlines.
South Africa was widely criticized by Western commentators for its silence on the on-going crisis in Zimbabwe, and President Thabo Mbeki took the brunt of it for his so called "silent diplomacy" policy when it comes to Zanu-PF's violent repression of political opposition. Yet despite the ANC's apparent policy of denial, Mbeki was appointed by the Southern African Development Community to facilitate a resolution that would end the violence in March 2007. Since then he made several fruitless visits to Zimbabwe attempting to facilitate a compromise between the long standing president, Robert Mugabe of Zanu-PF, and MDC opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Mbeki came to Harare after the presidential runoff that was widely condemned locally and internationally as unfair, to head the Southern African Development Community (SADC) sponsored power-sharing talks in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.
This time, however, Mbeki was able to facilitate an agreement between the two parties and factions within the MDC, and was critically congratulated by the international community who had long demanded a change in Zimbabwe's government. Many MDC hardliners reproached Mbeki for his long support of Mugabe, and refused to commend the agreement for the fact that Mugabe was left control of the presidency. Yet a change needed to be made to move Zimbabwe forward, and Mbeki, through SADC, managed to salvage a deal. He left Zimbabwe on a note of fraternity and pan-African unity. His speech at the closing of the signing ceremony reflected a tone of hope, hard work ahead, and included the promised support of the southern African community.
After a quick stop in Sudan, Mbeki flew home to his own personal hell. The political winds swirling around the corruption charges against ANC rival Jacob Zuma suddenly swerved in Zuma's favor. With the corruption charges thrown out a few weeks ago, a shift reminiscent of his rape trial of 2005, Zuma used the judge's rulings as evidence that Mbeki had used his executive power to abuse the hand of justice against his deputy president. Zuma was able to pool enough support within the ANC to bring about the greatest political shift in South Africa since the end of Apartheid. On Sunday September 21st Mbeki addressed the nation and formally confirmed rumors that he was resigning at the request of the ANC. Today a new president was elected by parliament and inaugurated.
Local and international media went berserk. One week ago, media reports on Africa from Western news sources centered around whether Western sanctions against Zimbabwe would be dropped in time for the agricultural harvest, if the newly composed government would be able to get along for the good of the people, and if corruption would be mitigated by the new agreement. Now Zimbabwe and its fragile new beginning seems to be all but forgotten.
A select few, however, are asking if Mbeki will still be involved in the second stage of power-sharing agreements. This question hits on the critical issue of regional support for Zimbabwe's continued democratic and economic development. Whether Mbeki stays involved or not, a promise by the Southern African community was made through him to the people of Zimbabwe, and SADC must stick to it. The regional body must adhere to the huge responsibility it embarked upon by sponsoring the talks and prove that it will support Zimbabwe even if the West will not. Agricultural inputs such as seed, fertilizer, new tractors and especially fuel are essential if Zimbabwe is to overcome the current food crisis that has reached dire proportions. Mbeki recognized that this urgent aid may very well not be available outside of Africa in time for the harvest. Zimbabwe's disfunctional economy will remain a burden on the region until it is repaired - but such renewal cannot happen alone.
In addition, there is an apparent deadlock between Zanu-PF and MDC over who will control the most strategic ministries: Finance, Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs. Little of this drama is still covered by the Western media that has only really been focusing on South Africa's power struggle since Mbeki left Zimbabwe. Sanctions must be lifted in Zimbabwe, in order restore hope in a fragile nation working its way toward a new democracy. If the US and the EU wait until the government fulfills the power-sharing agreement, it may be too late. Without media attention, their will be less impetus for Western governments to pursue the progressive economic policies (particularly regarding debt and trade) that Zimbabwe will need to restore its abysmal economy.
Once again, the Western media is unable to focus on more than only one African crisis (or even country!) at a time. Zimbabwe and South Africa have both just experienced their biggest political changes in decades. Global media should cover these events accordingly - with both nations in the headlines.