Turmoil in Southern Africa

Our view: The world has a big stake in not letting Zimbabwe and South Africa slide into chaos

October 20, 2008

The fate of Southern Africa is hanging in the balance as a result of continuing upheavals in Zimbabwe and South Africa, where political instability and economic uncertainty are threatening to unravel the promise both nations once held out of being models for the region after emerging from white minority rule more than a decade ago. It's a situation that demands international attention.

In Zimbabwe, negotiations between President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change collapsed over Mr. Mugabe's refusal to make good on a power-sharing deal signed last month that would have given Mr. Tsvangirai's party a significant role in the government.

Mr. Tsvangirai is widely believed to have won national elections earlier this year. But Mr. Mugabe, who has led his party for nearly three decades, refused to accept the results and forced a run-off. Then he unleashed his military on a wave of beatings and killings aimed at MDC supporters that forced Mr. Tsvangirai to withdraw from the race.

Facing international condemnation, Mr. Mugabe finally agreed in August to share power with his opponents. But his idea of a unity government seems to be keeping control of the army, police, intelligence and finance ministries while leaving Mr. Tsvangirai with little more to do than collect the trash. Meanwhile the country's economy is tanking and inflation is 231 million percent a year.

South Africa's difficulties are more recent but daunting. Twenty million of its citizens live in crushing poverty, and an epidemic of violent crime is driving a brain drain of whites and blacks from the country. Economic growth has stalled and inflation is up, riots against foreigners - including refugees from Zimbabwe's turmoil - have erupted in cities and power shortages recently forced the government to ration electricity.

On top of that, the ruling African National Congress, which has led the country since the end of the Apartheid era, is paralyzed by factional infighting. Last month former President Thabo Mbeki was forced to resign amid corruption charges. The party named as his successor a stand-in for Mr. Mbeki's arch rival, Jacob Zuma, a polarizing figure best known for his 2006 acquittal on rape charges at a trial in which he defended himself by claiming the victim provoked him by wearing a short skirt and sitting provocatively.

Both Zimbabwe and South Africa possess abundant natural and human resources that could enable them to lift their populations out of poverty and lead the region to a new era of prosperity. Instead they find themselves facing ruinous economic prospects and the very real threat of internal conflicts that could spiral into civil war. The international community must keep up the pressure for political reconciliation in both countries and continue development aid aimed at promoting growth. It's in no one's interest to allow either Zimbabwe or South Africa to devolve into failed states like Somalia and Sudan that threaten not only their neighbors but the entire world community.

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