People's power has arrived in Africa and, as some have recently argued, it's not just Africa north of the Sahara in which the democratic spirit is stirring. The thrilling political earthquake that began in Tunisia, exploded into Egypt and then rippled out to Libya is set to leave lasting changes in its wake. Its too early to say exactly what those changes will be but one thing is for sure – this is the greatest moment in the global struggle for human freedom since 1989 when the Soviet Union and its dominions across Eastern Europe fell.
When the protest spread from Tunis to Cairo they began as a carnival of freedom. Men and women, Muslims, Christians and secular people, old and young and rich and poor were all united in their excited opposition to dictatorships. It was a beautiful moment which the philosopher Nigel Gibson has likened to the Paris Commune of 1871.
In Tripoli the North African revolution is taking the form of pitched battles against a ruthless and psychopathic dictator. Here there is courage aplenty but no carnival. Irrespective of the ultimate fate of the Libyan Revolution a loud and clear message has been sent to dictators around the world. That message is that while it is possible to oppress a people for a long time, even generations, the people will reach a point at which they decide to rise.
The time will come when the will of the people will be expressed. In our own neighbourhood Mugabe and Mswati must be watching the revolutions raging across the North of the continent with considerable anxiety. Neither ZANU-PF nor the Swazi monarchy will run their brutal dictatorships for ever and while the rest of us thrill to the winds of change blowing down from North Africa that wind must be chilling to the tyrants in Harare and Mbabane.
Mugabe seems to be especially anxious. Gadaffi has been one of his biggest backers and has used his oil money to turn the African Union (AU) into a new version of the old Organisation for African Unity (OAU), which was rightly disparaged as a dictator's club. Zimbabwean state television has, like Chinese state television, steadfastly ignored the revolutions in North Africa. And when the International Socialist Organisation, a courageous but tiny Trotskyite organisation, arranged a meeting at which people could watch some footage of the protests in Cairo Mugabe promptly had all 46 people arrested and charged with treason. This has been followed up by axe wielding mobs attacking MDC meetings. Paranoia is a sign of weakness and this paranoia is even ridiculous by Mugabe's own standards. He must know that the thread by which his authority hangs could snap at any minute.
Mugabe successfully stole elections in Zimbabwe in 2000, 2002 and 2005. Each time he was assisted with the complicity of various forces in and outside of his country. In South Africa there are factions who remain solidly pro-Mugabe but generally political parties, trade unions, poor people's movements and civil society are united in their opposition to the Mugabe dictatorship.
When we think of Zimbabwe, in the context of the North African revolutions, we are confronted by three urgent questions.
The first is how we offer solidarity to the Zimbabwean refugees in our country. The periodic attacks on Zimbabweans by ordinary people and the ongoing and harassment of Zimbabwean refugees by our police needs to be urgently opposed. We need to recall the solidarity shown to South African exiles in other African countries and demonstrate basic human decency. Change can come to Zimbabwe soon, and in the potentially uneasy days of a difficult transition from dictatorship, SA will need to offer immense support to Zimbabwean refugees.
The second question that we need to consider is the nature of the flaw in some of our leaders that has allowed them to become complicit with tyranny. The struggle against apartheid was supported by governments, ordinary people and civil society around the world. One would have thought that we would have taken a similarly activist position towards tyranny in other countries. But instead some in SA some have taken the same position towards tyranny in Zimbabwe that Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher took towards apartheid - "constructive engagement" or, in Mbeki's outdated spin, "quiet diplomacy."
The third question we must ponder is the question of what went wrong in Zimbabwe. The argument that Mugabe was a good leader who went rotten holds no water. Revisionist Zimbabwean historians have pointed to ruthless abuses during the liberation struggle. And of course we cannot forget Operation Gukurahundi, the ethnic cleansing of the Ndebele in Matabeleland in the early 1980s which cost more than 20 000 lives. This crime against humanity is enough, on its own, to ensure that Mugabe should be called to account for his crimes before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It is clear that the political culture of Zanu-PF was authoritarian and rapacious long before the fiasco of recent years. Zimbabwe has been governed by ruthless and predatory elite from the beginning. The seeds of the later crimes, the plunder of the Congo, the attacks on shack dwellers and street traders and the ruthless suppression of internal opposition, were planted early on.
What this means is that it is essential to think holistically. Just because a man and a movement opposed one form of tyranny does not mean that they are opposed to tyranny. There is a tremendous difference between using democracy to come to power and being democratic. A democrat is not defined as a person who came to power by democracy. A democrat is defined as a person who, when in power, welcomes debate and dissent. By this definition it is clear that Zimbabwe has never been a democracy.
We should be proud that our Constitution commits our government to welcome dissent and to be aware that in a democracy we need to always protect this. Any signs of Zanufication in any part of our society are a challenge we must all take up. So, as South Africans, when we think of Zimbabwe in the context of what is happening in North Africa, we need to also reflect on the important role that South Africa needs to play in promoting democratic transformation in Zimbabwe.
We are, no doubt, appropriately reminded by the Zimbabwean media entrepreneur, Trevor Ngube, that Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have restored the collective faith in peoples' power. The clear signs that Zanu PF has been shaken by the North African revolutions show up that the regime in Harare is not all powerful and that it will go the same way as the dictatorships in North Africa. It is a question of ‘when’ and not 'if'.
Mugabe is going nowhere. Like it or not, the Arab World principals don't apply in Southern Africa.