WASHINGTON--Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has been blaming the cholera epidemic that has already killed 1,100 people and may have infected 20,000 others, along with a famine that threatens another 5 million, on--who else?--Western colonialism. But both are of his own making and should shame most of the 14 governments, led by South Africa, that make up the Southern African Development Community. They have abetted the world's most evil ruler.
Zimbabwe was once one of Africa's promising economies. Although Mugabe did not mess with it too much in the first part of his 28-year rule, in the last decade he has systematically destroyed it through corruption, the assault on private property and the maniacal printing of money. Inflation, according to Zimbabwean economist John Robertson, now reaches a figure so high--an eight followed by 18 zeros--that it is inconceivable. Public services, including the water and sewer systems that Mugabe wrested from city councils controlled by the opposition's Movement for Democratic Change, have collapsed. The cholera epidemic is a direct result of that descent into economic hell.
The dearth of food is another byproduct of Mugabe's delirium. It can be traced back to the new wave of land reform that started in 2000, when under the pretext of undoing the legacy of colonialism, the government terrorized white farm owners by sending the War Veterans Association, supposedly a group of Zimbabweans who had fought for the country's liberation, to seize the farms by force. Even though Mugabe lost a constitutional referendum that would have legally empowered him to confiscate farms, more than 100,000 square kilometers were taken over in a matter of weeks. As had been the case with a more civilized land "reform" of the 1980s, most of the property ended up in the hands of cronies or peasants unable to engage in economies of scale in the plots that were distributed to them. Agricultural output was decimated in what was once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa.
This exercise in economic self-flagellation has taken place under a tyranny that has murdered thousands of citizens. Even after the power-sharing agreement signed by Mugabe last September in the wake of his defeat in the first round of the presidential elections and the subsequent, government-sponsored violence, people close to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai have been kidnapped or killed.
With the exception of Botswana, Tanzania and Zambia, the member states of the Southern African Development Community, South Africa in particular, have provided the regime in Harare with political cover on every important occasion. They whitewashed the rigged presidential election in 2002, called for Tsvangirai to recognize the legitimacy of Mugabe's dictatorship, blamed the opposition for most of the violence and did not protest when Mugabe refused to publish the results of the first round of the presidential election this year.
There are several reasons why Thabo Mbeki was a shameful president of South Africa until he was legally kicked out of power a few months ago--including his contention that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which according to the United Nations affects one in five people in his country, is not the cause of AIDS. Part of his foreign policy legacy is the protection of Mugabe all these years. In a recent conversation, former South African opposition leader Tony Leon told me that "Mbeki's liberation movement mindset led him to see Mugabe as a fellow comrade in arms and exculpate him from the evils of his government."
The cruel irony is that South Africa is now itself a victim of Mugabe's rule. The cholera epidemic and the looming famine have already sent many Zimbabweans across the Limpopo River into South Africa, leading many to question the de facto protection of Zimbabwe's regime. The fact that South Africa is under a caretaker president of sorts until the elections scheduled for next April probably means that the status quo will continue. Despite being out of power, Mbeki continues to be the "mediator" on the other side of the border.
Unlike former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan or activist Graca Machel (Nelson Mandela's wife), who were recently told they were not welcome, Mbeki has no trouble getting in and out of Zimbabwe.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is the editor of "Lessons from the Poor" and the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute.
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa