Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe
The scheming survivor.
(Mugabe arguably served as an anti-role model for Mandela. Mandela could have remained in power as long as he wanted. But Mugabe's 20-year fiasco surely convinced Mandela that a longer term would have stifled South Africa's democracy.)
Mugabe has behaved petulantly since South Africa's revival. When Mandela sought to mediate peace in the Congo in 1998, Mugabe sent 6,000 troops there to back Laurent Kabila against invaders from Uganda and Rwanda. About 11,000 Zimbabwean troops remain in the Congo today, and no one, least of all Mugabe, seems to have any idea how to extract them. The Congo invasion prompted the International Monetary Fund to cancel Zimbabwe's funding, further eroding the economy.
Mugabe has also gotten greedier. Many trace his kleptomania to the 1992 death of his sensible first wife Sally and his quick remarriage to his very young, and very avaricious, secretary. Mugabe has used the Congo adventure for fund raising: Kabila has paid him off by giving diamond and cadmium concessions to Mugabe cronies.
And Mugabe is increasingly megalomaniacal in his dotage. Last month he enraged the U.K. by searching a British diplomatic shipment arriving in Zimbabwe. His goons have tortured journalists who report unfavorably about the Congo war. He is trying to ban e-mail messages about politics. He has launched an incomprehensible vendetta against gays, imagining a gay conspiracy that includes Tony Blair and "the gay government of the gay United gay Kingdom."
Optimists read this erratic behavior as a sign that Mugabe's end is near. These are, as one political opponent puts it, "the last kicks of a dying horse." The MDC, a lively coalition of unions, church groups, and farmers, believes it can finish Mugabe's reign. Westerners seem hopeful that the MDC can grab a majority in parliament and push Mugabe, whose term does not end until 2002, into early retirement.
But Mugabe's canniness has been underestimated as usual. Reservoirs of goodwill remain toward him, especially in the rural/peasant majority. He will hang on to power, no matter what. The farm invasions are already having their desired effect. This week South Africa—terrified of anti-white violence surging in its countryside—reportedly proposed a settlement to end Zimbabwe's chaos. According to the Boston Globe, Britain and the United States will supply millions of dollars for land reform, allowing Mugabe's government to buy white land rather than seize it. The IMF would repair relations with Zimbabwe and rescue Zimbabwe's fuel and electricity companies. South Africa would try to boost investor confidence in Zimbabwe. In exchange, Mugabe would end the farm occupations and promise not to cancel the forthcoming elections. Mugabe's deputies are now negotiating with British officials in London to complete a deal.
He has blackmailed those who can't stand him into guaranteeing his survival. The deal should provide Mugabe with the cash and resources to prop up his economy, defuse urban unrest, and win the elections. Another neat trick from a politician who never runs out of them.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.