By proceeding with his one-candidate election on Friday, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has thumbed his nose at the international community. So what is the international community going to do to ensure compliance with democratic norms by the leader of a landlocked country whose economy is in free fall and its people increasingly dependent on food aid? Not too much, it seemed on Friday, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking at the G8 foreign ministers conclave in Kyoto, vowed to bring the matter up at the U.N. Security Council. No decisive action ought to be expected from that forum, in which China has long shown itself willing to wield its veto to prevent economic sanctions against its African trading partners (of which Zimbabwe is one). Statements of outrage from European governments were scarcely more specific, although British officials said they planned to expand the number of Mugabe cronies on travel-ban lists, and to press the European Union to tighten sanctions.
The contrast is stark between the world's response to the plight of the Zimbabweans and its engagement in southern Africa's last great battle against tyranny the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. From campuses and civil society groups to the corridors of power throughout the Western world, the pressure was on for divestment and economic sanctions against the white-minority regime. And that pressure paid dividends when financial sanctions at a critical moment denied the regime access to credit and loans it desperately needed, helping nudge it to concede to the principle of majority rule and a handover of power to the democratically elected government of President Nelson Mandela in 1994.
The integration of the world's economy over the past two decades has made imposing sanctions a far more daunting challenge today than it had been during the anti-apartheid era. Whereas most of the major foreign investors in South Africa during the 1980s had been U.S. and European corporations, effective sanctions today would require support from the world's emerging economies, particularly in Asia, where the tactic is unpopular. "The appetite for international sanctions has decreased massively in the last 10 or 15 years because it's seen as much more difficult to enforce," says Thomas Cargill of the London-based think tank Chatham House. And since millions of Zimbabweans are struggling simply to survive, Western officials fear that sanctions could render them totally desperate and more dependent than ever on Mugabe's regime. That's one reason why South Africa where 1.5 million Zimbabweans are currently seeking refuge, their presence raising the recently violent ire of many poor South Africans has held off from putting a chokehold on Zimbabwe, to which it supplies massive amounts of electricity. And if oil companies withdrew from Zimbabwe, for example, government officials would likely smuggle in enough fuel to keep the regime running, says Cargill, while "ordinary people would either have none or would have to request it from the government."
Some European governments have recently moved to cut business ties. German officials on Friday ordered a Munich company, Giesecke and Devrient, to stop supplying Zimbabwe with the paper on which it prints its near-worthless banknotes with Zimbabwe's estimated annual inflation rate at about 165,000%, the printers of Zimbabwe dollars have been a regular client of Giesecke and Devrient.
But there's been no rush for the exits by the corporate giants that have helped keep Zimbabwe ticking along, including Royal Dutch Shell, British American Tobacco, and the Anglo American Corporation, which owns a platinum mine in the country. Many of the 79 companies listed on the Harare Stock Exchange are, in fact, earning solid returns, despite the daily misery of most Zimbabweans amid severe shortages of food, electricity and fuel. Last year the London-based commodities firm Lonrho began an investment fund called LonZim, aiming to snap up investments before the collapse of Zimbabwe's government. Zimbabwe's immense mineral wealth was "cheap as chips" and going for "fire-sale prices," Lonrho Africa's chairman David Lenigas told reporters when the fund launched. Investors willing to take the risk now could be well positioned to take advantage of the immense opportunities of a post-Mugabe economy being rebuilt from scratch.
Western governments have been slow to try political negotiations, or even to enact cost-free sanctions against Mugabe. In part, this is because European and U.S. officials believe that the African Union whose summit is under way in Egypt should spearhead negotiations on Zimbabwe. Yet the West has so far balked at the solution which South Africa, the most important player, has in mind: a deal for Mugabe to share power with his enemies in exchange for amnesty from prosecution in an international tribunal. It was only last week that Britain stripped Mugabe of the honorary knighthood conferred on him by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994, and canceled a planned cricket series between England and Zimbabwe. The country's athletes are headed to next month's Olympics in Beijing; among them is Kirsty Coventry, who won a swimming gold medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004, earning her the affectionate nickname "golden girl" from Zimbabwe. By contrast, South Africa's athletes were banned from Olympic competitions for three decades, and being barred from international competition in rugby and cricket was a psychological blow to the white minority.
"There has been an element in Britain and elsewhere which sees these sports teams as victims," says Cargill. "There is an uneasiness with making them suffer."
Yet even long-suffering Zimbabweans know that no regime is forever. Back in 1965 the country's white ruler Ian Smith who declared unilateral independence from Britain of what was then called Rhodesia vowed that "not in one thousand years, not in my lifetime" would black majority rule come to the country. Fifteen years later he retired to his farm, after being ousted from power by a liberation movement led by Robert Mugabe.