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Given the unrest in Zimbabwe over recent weeks one can only wonder why South Africa, the region’s economic and political giant, is sticking to its policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’. Conditions in Zimbabwe have worsened. Women are forced to use dirty rags as sanitary towels, members of the opposition party are beaten up and thousands go hungry and South Africa remains silent.

The government of President Thabo Mbeki believes that the answer lies with the Zimbabweans and that it’s South Africa’s job to get government and opposition to the table to resolve their differences. This approach stems from the shared history of the two countries’ ruling parties ZANU-PF (Zimbabwean African National Union Patriotic Front) and ANC (African National Congress). Both took part in the liberation of their countries and Zimbabwe helped and sheltered exiled South Africans in the 1980s.

In an interview in the FT on Monday, president Mbeki defended silent diplomacy and reiterated his calls for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. The problem is that such exhortations have until now fallen on deaf ears. Numerous attempts by South Africa to broker talks between the ZANU-PF led government and the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) have also failed.

Levy Mwanawasa, the Zambian president who has compared the situation in Zimbabwe to a ‘sinking Titanic’, recently urged southern African leaders to take a new approach. It is about time that SADC (Southern African Development Community), which last week reiterated support for Mr Mugabe, also realised that a different course of action is required.

When the South African government recently spoke out following the arrest and beating of Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader, its criticism was so mild as to be close to meaningless. It stated simply that Mugabe’s government “must ensure that the rule of law including respect for rights of all Zimbabweans and leaders of various political parties is respected ”.

But even if South Africa were to act now, could Tony Leon, leader of the opposition DA party, be right when he said it was ’a little too late’?

Britain and the United States have been urging South Africa to take action against Mugabe for a number of years.

President Mbeki once said he doubted that any shouting from the west would get the Zimbabweans together to solve their problems. But a little shouting from Pretoria could now be of assistance.

President Mugabe will not listen to the West, but he may listen to his neighbour. The use of force against Zimbabwe is not an option. International law must be observed. Imposing more sanctions on Zimbabwe is an option, but not a good one as it will be ordinary Zimbabweans who end up suffering.

So, realistically what can the South African government do? It could make a stronger and more forceful statement to Mr Mugabe and his government for a start.

The South African government only has to cast its eye to the 1980s when human right abuses in South Africa were at a high, and international condemnation played a role in bringing an end to apartheid.

Moreover, South Africa and SADC should condemn Harare and act as one on this issue. They should insist that ZANU-PF and the MDC come to the table to discuss their differences and hopefully arrive at a solution that will be for the good of the country and their people.

This is a matter of extreme urgency before a societal meltdown occurs. SADC met last week but the outcome of the meeting was not what the world expected to hear. Before the meeting, some southern African leaders, including President Mwanawasa of Zambia, were calling for a new approach to Zimbabwe. But the outcome of the meeting was at best a reinforcement of the group’s time-honoured stance.

With a third of Zimbabwe’s people living within the borders of neighbouring countries, time is running out and the cry for help is great It is not just the fate of Zimbabwe that hangs in the balance, but the future and reputation of southern Africa as a whole.

Nkosi Zuma is a young South African freelance journalist living in London

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