On a flight last summer from Johannesburg to Harare, I sat across the aisle from a large man, who, like nearly everyone else on the plane, had hoarded as many luxury items onboard as South African Airways would allow. It is practically impossible to find televisions, stereos, and microwaves--not to mention basic necessities like food--in Zimbabwe anymore, and Zimbabweans with means (which means those loyal to President Robert Mugabe and his party, the Zimbabwean African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF) must travel to South Africa to purchase them. The man across from me was talkative and jovial and was traveling with his two young daughters. I did not tell him I was a journalist (it is, for all practical purposes, illegal for foreign journalists to enter Zimbabwe--some have been deported, others imprisoned for short stints), though he nonchalantly volunteered that he was a corporal in the South African military, based in Zimbabwe, somewhere around Harare. (I didn't think I could ask why without giving myself away.) Of course, it's no secret that South Africa has a close and cooperative relationship with Zimbabwe. But I was not prepared for such an open confession of its bond with a ruler who, whatever he once did to throw off the yoke of colonial oppression, is now one of the world's most loathsome tyrants.
By all outside appearances, Zimbabwe stands on the brink of disaster. Its life expectancy (37 for men, 34 for women) is the lowest in the world. It's inflation rate, more than 1,000 percent, is the world's highest. Food shortages are chronic, and people have been reduced to eating rats and mice, a desperate measure I witnessed mere miles from Mugabe's presidential mansion in Harare. Unemployment stands at 80 percent.
South Africa, on the other hand--not long ago a pariah state--likes to think of itself as a benevolent hegemon in the region (in contrast to its record in the 1970s and 1980s, when it occupied Namibia, killed anti-apartheid activists in neighboring countries and around the world, and fueled civil wars in Angola, Rhodesia, and Mozambique). Now a democracy, its influence in the region ought to be for the better. And its international profile has been burnished most recently with a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, the rotating presidency of which South Africa held last month. Yet South African support of Mugabe belies its pretensions to benign authority. And, while its support so far has mostly been economic and humanitarian, it's possible that my friend from the airplane might be put to work for Zimbabwe's regime. If Mugabe's government should ever collapse, South Africa may be induced by the legal commitments it has signed to rescue him--through a military intervention if necessary.
South Africa has committed itself to the Mugabe regime through a series of continental, regional, and bilateral legal agreements. In 2002, the African Union (AU) was launched as a successor to the Organization of African Unity. African leaders hoped that the change would be more than just cosmetic, and a major difference between the AU and its forerunner was that, in the age after Rwanda, it would grant member states the power to intervene, militarily, to prevent humanitarian catastrophe. Yet in February 2003, a year after Western election observers deemed Zimbabwe's presidential balloting neither free nor fair, it adopted a significant change to its founding document regarding military interventions. The members added a line that "reserved" the right of the AU to intervene in another member state to stifle a "serious threat to legitimate order." This was a crucial addition to a clause that originally allowed intervention only in "grave circumstances ... namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity." Functionally, the change protected the more authoritarian-leaning states from the threat of insurrection. The amendment was "not intended to protect the individual rights but to entrench the regimes in power," wrote Evarist Baimu and Kathryn Sturman of the South African Institute for Security Studies at the time.
If the amendment helps regimes in power, Zimbabwe is the obvious beneficiary. Even though the West and human rights groups view Mugabe as an illegitimate ruler, South Africa and the AU both independently certified Zimbabwe's rigged 2000 and 2005 parliamentary elections and his 2002 presidential reelection, conferring "legitimate authority." From South Africa, this wasn't a complete surprise: The countries are already quite close. They are both members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), whose forerunner was the Southern African Development Coordination Conference, a group founded in 1980 to lessen economic dependence on the then-apartheid South African regime. It had nine founding-member states; just-liberated Zimbabwe was among them. But, when the organization became the SADC in 1992, it underwent an important legal transformation: Suddenly, it wasn't just an economic cooperative; it was now a legal and military alliance much like NATO. South Africa joined in August of 1994, soon after its first post-apartheid, democratic election.
As members of the SADC, South Africa and Zimbabwe are also signatories to that organization's Mutual Defense Pact. Article 7 of the agreement stipulates that "No action shall be taken to assist any State Party in terms of this Pact, save at the State Party's own request or with its consent." Thus, Mugabe can continue to run a police state and his neighbors can't do anything about it without his permission. Conversely, if Mugabe feels that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), his opposition, poses a threat, he could theoretically ask SADC members to help him stamp it out.
This isn't hard to imagine. Raenette Taljaard, a former opposition member of parliament and director of the Helen Suzman Foundation--a persistent critic of the South African government's policy on Zimbabwe--asked me: "If [wide scale protest] happens tomorrow and there's unrest and Mugabe starts shooting and he sends in a call to either the SADC Mutual Defense Pact or to the [AU] Protocol, what's the decision going to be?" Taljaard isn't sure South Africa would forcibly put down a Zimbabwean revolt, but she thinks that's the "logical conclusion" of the commitments it has signed.
Of course, just because treaty language allows an intervention doesn't mean it'll happen. But, given how close the countries are, it's hardly impossible. In 1996, South Africa and Zimbabwe signed a defense pact, and, in 2005, they established a Joint Permanent Commission on Defense and Security, which aims to coordinate military strategy. At the commission's inaugural meeting, the South African intelligence minister, Ronnie Kasrils, stated that "The history of the liberation struggles of Southern Africa and the resultant shedding of blood for a common cause ... cemented our cooperation on the way forward in the development of our respective countries." The SADC maintains a "Regional Peace-keeping training center" in Harare that has trained well over 1,000 troops from member countries--a clue about what the man I met on the plane might have been doing in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has also trained South African air force pilots, and Pretoria is rumored to have provided intelligence to Mugabe on Zimbabwean democracy activists exiled in South Africa.
But, to justify a South African intervention, Mugabe's regime would genuinely need to be at risk--and, since the start of the 2000 farm seizures, the political situation has remained remarkably stable. There has been no armed insurrection, due largely to the fact that Mugabe wields complete control of his country's armed forces and police (they are some of the few people in the country earning a regular paycheck).
Yet the stability provided by their loyalty to Mugabe is beginning to wither. According to a memo from the Zimbabwean police commissioner leaked in December, as much as 10 percent of the country's police may resign in protest over government failures to pay their salaries. The letter, dated December 8, 2006 and sent to the home affairs minister warned, "We are overwhelmed by the numerous operations that we are being asked to carry out in almost every facet of government. It is now as if the police have been assigned the role of governing the country."
There are also signs that Mugabe's political base is shrinking. At the most recent ZANU-PF conference in December, Mugabe attempted to pass an amendment to the country's constitution that would have allowed him to extend his six-year presidential term by two years so that he would not have to face re-election until 2010. He claimed this was an attempt to harmonize presidential and parliamentary elections (the latter of which are not slated until 2010) to save the country money. But he was surprised by opposition from both leaders in his party and grassroots supporters, and, at the insistence of provincial ministers, the amendment was tabled. The Zimbabwe Independent, one of two independent newspapers in the country, reported that "there was a groundswell of discontent among delegates" and that, if ZANU-PF had experienced a face-off between its hard-liners and moderates, "it could have had seismic repercussions in the party that could have led to Mugabe's early departure."
Still, Mugabe's grip on power is nearly ironclad, and South Africa is probably the only country in any position to change that. So far, it hasn't shown much inclination to tighten the screws (although President Thabo Mbeki did join a chorus of countries criticizing Mugabe's 2010 initiative, perhaps because South Africa will be hosting the World Cup that year and does not want bad news coming out of the country next door). The SADC agreement, which might push it toward intervening, is one possibility why South Africa has been docile--though it is hardly the only one.
But the SADC treaty that might help Mugabe also provides a way for Pretoria to use it against him. Tony Leon, the leader of South Africa's opposition party, the Democratic Alliance--who has tried and failed to make government leaders see the hypocrisy in their support of Mugabe--told me that his country could give Mugabe an ultimatum: "You can either democratize and accept the consequences of democracy, or you're going to be hoisted on your own petard--and the petard is the protocols of the SADC states." Those same protocols, it turns out, demand free and fair elections, democratic governance, and human rights--all things that Mugabe has repeatedly denied his people. (The treaty's preamble calls for "the guarantee of democratic rights, observance of human rights and the rule of law.")
Pretoria, for its part, shows no interest in this approach. The government hasn't said publicly whether it stations troops other than SADC trainees in Zimbabwe (its U.S. Embassy did not return a call for comment), but my friend from the flight could be posted in Zimbabwe only with the country's knowledge and approval. Since Western pressure has, so far, done nothing to break Mugabe's reign of terror, maybe it's time to turn our attention to his greatest patron.
James Kirchick is the assistant to the editor-in-chief.