Dear Mr Mbeki,

Something, call it instinct, tells me you won’t be poring over the Granta website any time soon, so I do not believe that you will read this letter.

And if by an accident of the mouse-click, you find yourself directed to this page, I do not flatter myself that my insignificant scribbling will make a dent in your legendary mulishness. But I write to you, Mr Mbeki, because I have to.

‘The solution to the problem of Zimbabwe lies in the hands of the people of Zimbabwe,’ you said at the United Nations in New York on April 16, 2008. I acknowledge your use of the word ‘problem’, Mr Mbeki. The last statement you made in public prior to this was when you said the situation in Zimbabwe was ‘not a crisis’, before going off to repeat the same words at the Southern African Development Community summit on April 12.

A crisis is a disaster is a catastrophe is a predicament is a calamity. In Zimbabwe, the full election results are still to be announced three weeks after they were held; the party that according to partial results has been voted out of office is holding the country hostage and printing money and issuing notes and appointing headmen and acting like it is business as usual. The Zanu-PF-controlled state media preach a daily diatribe of hate and intolerance against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), yet the MDC’s voice is muzzled. The people that voted for the opposition, and those ruling party members that did not work hard enough to ensure victory, are assaulted. Zanu-PF has effectively said it will do anything to prevent the MDC from assuming power. And the An Yue Jiang, a Chinese ship, is sailing from one African port to another, looking to unload tonnes of weapons destined to arm a government that long ago lost the war against hyperinflation and hunger. And to you, Mr Mbeki, none of this constitutes a crisis.

A problem, then; a difficulty, a dilemma, a quandary, a predicament, a setback, a hitch. We clearly have different thesauri, Mr Mbeki, because mine tells me that a problem can also be a crisis – but I will not quibble over semantics. We have a problem in Zimbabwe.

The solution lies in the hands of the people of Zimbabwe, you said. You are absolutely right; no one can solve our problem for us – but this is where it gets a little confusing, because the people have now spoken. They have given their problem a name, Mr Mbeki, and that name is Zanu-PF. They have found a solution, Mr Mbeki, and that solution is to vote for the Movement for Democratic Change. It may not be the best solution in the world, Mr Mbeki, but it is the only solution there is, because it is the solution that the majority of people who voted in the March elections have chosen. But this choice has not been respected because the people have not been allowed to speak. The votes for the presidential election are still to be announced. And they may never be announced. And that is a problem.

Mr Mbeki, you were recently pictured in Harare with your hands clasped so tightly in Mr Mugabe’s that your sinews were as one. What crisis, you said afterwards, or words to that effect. As soon as you said those words, you killed the SADC summit towards which you were headed. And that, of course, was your intention.


You have spent the best part of the last five years as the Southern African region’s point-man on Zimbabwe. You asked the opposition and ruling parties to come together for talks in which you were a neutral arbiter. But, from your aloofness to Zimbabwe’s opposition, your grinning geniality in the embrace of Mr Mugabe, your optimistic statements, often contradicted by the opposition, that all is well between the opposition and the ruling parties, and your rude responses to questions about the apparent failure of your quiet diplomacy, it has become clear that you have a firm stake in this problem that is not a crisis.

It is also clear that you have no interest in a solution that sees the removal of Zanu-PF. You wish to saddle the people of Zimbabwe with a government they have rejected.

The people of Zimbabwe have rejected your friends, Mr Mbeki. You see, they happen to believe in the promise made by this same Zanu-PF at Independence in 1980, that the country would be a democratic republic based on one-person one-vote. This is what Prime Minister Mugabe said at that time: ‘There can never be any return to the state of armed conflict which existed before our commitment to peace and the democratic process of election(s).’ They foolishly believed the words of Zanu-PF that our Independence was a time to beat swords into ploughshares, a time to attend to the problems of developing our economy and our society, and that we would be led, above all, by the national interest.

The people of Zimbabwe do not believe, as do your friends, Mr Mbeki, in Zimbabwe Ltd, a private company whose Reserve Bank is the personal piggy bank of Mr Mugabe’s family and friends. They do not believe that people sacrificed their lives in the war for liberation so that a handful of generals, judges, ministers and politburo commissars could have more than one farm while the poor remain landless. They do not believe that Mr Mugabe and his friends have the divine right to rule in perpetuity.

If I may digress a little, Mr Mbeki, it is not far from many people’s minds that you rather envy Mr Mugabe. Only your country’s iron-clad constitution, its tight bonds to international capital, its vigilant and frankly rabid press, and the naked ambition of the men and women around you prevent you from embracing the joys of geriatric dictatorship. You cannot be Mr Mugabe, Mr Mbeki, but you have been his body man and his handmaid. You have aided him in his misrule, you have provided cover for him before the world, you have blocked the will of the majority of Zimbabweans who have a different vision for their country.

You are human, Mr Mbeki, and are therefore prey to the resentments and obstinacies that plague the mere mortal. There was that HIV-does-not-cause-Aids brouhaha, wasn’t there, and the whole ARV saga, where you had to cave in to pressure and go along with a policy you did not support. Then there is the more recent Polokwane putsch by ballot – democracy is a bitch, isn’t it, Mr Mbeki? You are probably still seething because Jacob Zuma, a man whom you consider unfit to govern, may very soon move into the seat you currently occupy in Union Building. And of course, there are those unflattering comparisons to your predecessor, Nelson Mandela. History has wedged you between a saint and a satyr, Mr Mbeki; it must be really hard to be you.

Back to Zimbabwe, Mr Mbeki, and here I have a suggestion. Please do not regard it as an order, because I know how much you dislike being told what to do. Consider it, if you will, a helpful proposal. As you said yourself, Zimbabwe is not a province of South Africa. And you know there are more problems in the world than our little non-crisis. Real, honest to God, Class A crises, in fact. With a capital C.

Your razor-sharp ability to differentiate between a problem and a crisis is needed elsewhere. How about trying a little quiet diplomacy on the parts of the world that could use it, say Northern Uganda? You could also try solving the current Olympics-in-China flim-flam. And there is still all sorts of nastiness going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And don’t get me started on Darfur. So take your pick, Mr Mbeki. You need to step back and let someone else take over the task of helping the people of Zimbabwe resolve this problem that is not a crisis.

Because really, Mr Mbeki, you have done enough.


A version of this letter was first published in the Zimbabwe Times.

Photograph © University College Dublin

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