JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
The deepening crisis in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe's security forces arrested and severely beat opposition leaders last week, seems to be finally pushing its African neighbors away from "quiet diplomacy" into tepid protest.
Over the weekend, the African Union joined the US, Britain, and the United Nations in criticizing the government crackdown, and called on Zimbabwe to respect human rights. And in South Africa, there are splits within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party about whether quiet diplomacy actually works. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said African leaders should "hang [their] heads in shame" for not speaking out more forcefully against Mr. Mugabe.
"We call upon the governments of South Africa and the rest of the continent to condemn the Zimbabwe government, demand the immediate release of those arrested, and the restoration of human rights," said Patrick Craven, spokesman of the Confederation of South African Trade Unions, a key base of support for the ANC. Mr. Craven called the government's response thus far "shamefully weak."
As Zimbabwe's economy goes into a free fall, and its security forces clamp down on dissent, African leaders are breaking the taboo against criticizing Mugabe, who is still seen as a liberation hero for having led the struggle to free his country from white rule in the 1960s and 70s. Some analysts say that this change in attitude, together with growing Western pressure, could signal the beginning of the end for Mugabe's regime if the opposition sustains a vigorous protest campaign. Others say that if Zimbabwe has indeed reached a turning point, it may have more to do with machinations within Mugabe's own party, rather than any international pressure or domestic protests.
Already the signs of implosion are obvious. Inflation rates are pushing up to 1,700 percent and most Zimbabweans are living by barter. Food production has dropped, hospitals are declining, and the average life expectancy of a Zimbabwean woman, at 35, is now the lowest in the world.