Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Showing Mugabe the Door

Ever since Zimbabwe began imploding in 2000, the conventional punditry about its president, Robert Mugabe, has largely been of the good-leader-turns-bad variety. Now, as the country's economy enters its death throes -- hyperinflation at 1,700 percent and expected to exceed 5,000 percent by year's end; unemployment at 80 percent; the average person's purchasing power at 1953 levels; life expectancy the lowest in the world; and an exodus of Africa's most-educated population -- it would seem a good time to re-examine that orthodoxy and decide what the West can do to ease the dictator's departure.

In fact, Mugabe has been a completely consistent leader. It's the West that changed. During the Cold War, it was so grateful that this militant Marxist had instantly become a benign capitalist that it ignored Mugabe's history of political violence within his own party and intimidation in the 1980 elections that brought him to power upon Zimbabwe's independence. The West supported him in the same way it supported venal leaders like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire -- the West's friends simply because they were not Moscow's.

The other parapet behind which Mugabe found convenient shelter was apartheid, which persisted in his southern neighbor for the first 13 years of his rule. As the leader of the so-called frontline states facing a hostile white government in South Africa, he deserved Western support, and it gave him the benefit of the doubt even after his hands were bloodied in his southern province of Matabeleland -- where his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade killed as many as 25,000 civilians in 1983 and 1984.

It was a massacre that I saw and reported on, but not a big story in news terms, and there was barely a peep out of the international community. Somehow, to attack Mugabe was to appear to be giving succor to white South Africa, and Zimbabwe's strongman was a master at spinning it that way. When I wrote about the massacres, he immediately claimed I was a South African spy and had me declared an enemy of the state.

Then things went quiet -- but only because he had bludgeoned the opposition into quiescence and established a one-party system. The next time Zimbabweans had the temerity to question Mugabe's absolute rule was in 2000, when they voted against him in a referendum to extend his presidential term limits, a vote that in his complacency he hadn't even bothered to rig. He reacted to his defeat with violence and intimidation: His thugs began killing opposition supporters, evicting white commercial farmers (whom he had invited to stay on and contribute to the new Zimbabwe) and intimidating voters in subsequent rigged elections.

In recent months, Mugabe has stepped up the violence against opposition members and leaders in Zimbabwe, with the chilling development of Latin American-style hit squads that abduct and torture opposition supporters. On Friday, he quashed a challenge to his rule from within his own party. What can outside powers do to help ease out an 83-year-old leader who, after 27 years in power, would rather destroy his country than step down voluntarily?

Zimbabwe lacks the two exports necessary to interest the United States in direct intervention: oil and terrorism. International sanctions on Zimbabwe are now minuscule. The West could ramp up "smart sanctions" against Mugabe and his coterie, for example by freezing their ill-gotten external assets, but any wider sanctions would probably only hurt those at the bottom of the food chain and not the elite kleptocracy. Megaphone diplomacy tends to feed Mugabe's portrayal of Western powers as shrill, hectoring, imperialist bullies.

The real key to the Zimbabwe stalemate is to be found in South Africa, which has an economic choke-hold on its landlocked northern neighbor. But thus far, South African President Thabo Mbeki has refused to do anything about Mugabe. His policy of "quiet diplomacy" has, in truth, been a silent one. And he has paid a high price for such tacit support of Mugabe, whose embarrassing exploits ensured that Mbeki's much-vaunted African Renaissance was stillborn.

It has long been a political parlor game to figure out why Mbeki hasn't done more about Zimbabwe. He sometimes pays lip service to the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of another sovereign state, but South Africa quickly sent its army into Lesotho in 1998 after a rigged election there. Part of Mbeki's reluctance to act may have to do with Mugabe's residual status as a liberation hero. But mostly, I believe, it stems from Mbeki's distaste for the Zimbabwean opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change and its main leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who used to head up the Zimbabwean trade union movement.

Therein lies the problem: Mbeki's ruling African National Congress party is actually a troika, and one of its parts is the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which is becoming increasingly fractious. The group has strongly backed Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change, and if Tsvangirai were to come to power in Zimbabwe, it would greatly embolden the South African union confederation, encouraging it to secede from the African National Congress and pose a challenge to Mbeki. Thus has Zimbabwe become a function of South African domestic politics.

In so far as diplomacy is the art of the possible, Pretoria still provides the main fulcrum for change. South Africa controls and has the power to obstruct transportation links, lines of credit and electricity supplies, and it alone has the power and regional clout to face down Mugabe.

Mbeki may soon be in a position to do more. In a woeful display of the inadequacies of pan-African institutions, the 14 members of the South African Development Community last week came out in support of Mugabe's rule. But they nominated Mbeki to facilitate dialogue between Mugabe and his opposition.

The international community should make it clear to Mbeki that he, and the new South Africa, have a special moral obligation to help a nearby people who are oppressed and disenfranchised, having been assisted in its own struggle by just such pressure. And that "quiet diplomacy" is nothing less than the appeasement of a violent dictatorship. If Mbeki continues it, South Africa will squander the good will of the world.

Peter Godwin is the author of a forthcoming memoir, "When a Crocodile Eats the Sun." This comment appeared in The New York Times.