CAPE TOWN, South Africa — After 33 years, Robert Mugabe simply can't help himself. The Zimbabwean president who "won" yet another election, on July 31, is the scorpion in the parable of the scorpion and the frog -- being ruthless, relentless, autocratic, and corrupt is in his nature. After gaining independence from the British colony formerly known as Rhodesia, in 1980, Mugabe, Zimbabwe's first and only president, has ruled through increasingly autocratic means: invading white-owned farms in the guise of redistribution; jailing, killing and oppressing the opposition; destroying a once-strong economy; and stealing at least three elections. Think of him as a somewhat tragic (or just innately flawed) figure and one could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Zimbabwe's slow, sad and seemingly endless decline is not Mugabe's fault. It's the fault of organizations like the African Union, and governments like South Africa, upon which Africa hangs its dreams of democracy, equality, and peace.
Are South Africa and the AU unable to reign in Mugabe, or merely unwilling? Mugabe, who broke the back of Zimbabwe over a decade ago, bullied and bribed his way to victory in the bloody elections of 2008; there is credible evidence that it wasn't much different this time around. Independent election monitors talk of registration problems that disqualified up to a million of the country's six and a half million registered voters (Zimbabwe has a population of around 12 million). According to the Zimbabwe Research and Advocacy Unit, over a million people on the voters' role were either dead or no longer residing in the country. In one area, registered voters outnumbered actual inhabitants two-to-one. The Zimbabwean Electoral Commission reports that at least 305,000 registered voters were turned away at polling stations, many in the country's capital, Harare.
The United States, Britain, Australia, the European Union, and other Western nations all suspect that the election was unfair. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that this year's vote does "not represent a credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people," and described the election as "deeply flawed." And British Foreign Secretary William Hague voiced his "grave concerns" over the election results.
The regional response has been somewhat different. Admirably, the government of the small Southern African nation of Botswana has refused to call the election "free and fair." But South African president Jacob Zuma expressed his "profound congratulations" to Mugabe, described the election as "successful," and, in a perhaps intentional inversion of Kerry's statement, an "expression of the will of the people."
Zuma also described the election as "harmonized," which was either an acknowledgement of Mugabe's canny engineering, or an admission that, at the very least, no one was hurt. But Zuma is wrong -- democracy in Zimbabwe has been harmed, once again.
An editorial in the influential South African newspaper Business Day noted that "Polite but chilly acceptance of a crooked election result is one thing; gushing praise is quite another.... Our president doesn't seem to see the problem. That he doesn't is just plain embarrassing."
But Zuma's endorsement was all too typical. South Africa, which supplies its landlocked neighbor with oil, electricity, rail lines and other resources, is the one country that could have rescued Zimbabwe from Mugabe's rule. South Africa has failed Zimbabwe before. The problem began with Zuma's predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, whose policy of "quiet diplomacy" (a phrase as inane as "constructive engagement," President Ronald Reagan's stated method of negotiating with apartheid South Africa) only encouraged Mugabe.
Both former British colonies, South Africa and Zimbabwe have historically had a close relationship. Even after Zimbabwe gained independence, in the 13 years that South Africa remained an apartheid state, the two nations retained a mostly peaceful co-existence. For its part, South Africa has mining and mineral assets in Zimbabwe, from which it also imports sugar. Through the struggle years, Mugabe remained a steadfast ally of the then-exiled African National Congress (ANC), which explains democratic, ANC-governed South Africa's fraternal relationship with the aging dictator, if not its tendency to excuse his every infraction.