SOUTH African president Thabo Mbeki, out of respect for Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, and from the head-in-the-sand approach that African countries have traditionally taken toward problems in other African countries, has persisted in dragging his nation's feet in seeking to bring an end to the electoral crisis in Zimbabwe. Now it has come home to roost.
During the past week, South Africans have attacked foreign Africans in the slums of Johannesburg, assaulting, burning and killing Zimbabweans, Mozambiquans, Malawians, Congolese, and other immigrants living among them. South Africans themselves are suffering from high unemployment, electricity cuts, and squeezes on housing and social services that they blame on Mr. Mbeki's government.
It is a short jump from that sort of dissatisfaction to xenophobic blaming of and attacks on foreigners.
South Africa's relatively relaxed immigration policy has been sorely taxed by a flood of an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans pouring across its northern border.
Circumstances in Zimbabwe itself have decayed as Mr. Mugabe's government has lashed out in an attempt to keep the 84-year-old tribal Shona tyrant in power. Mr. Mugabe was defeated in presidential elections in March and his party, ZANU-PF lost control of parliament.
After hiding the results of the elections, his government has now rescheduled the presidential elections for June 27. There is little expectation that the elections will be honest, or that Mr. Mugabe will allow his defeat. Thus, desperate Zimbabweans will continue to leave their country and its ruined economy in droves, into South Africa.
The South Africans may finally conclude that they have to take decisive action. South Africa's border with Zimbabwe is long and hard to control. At the same time, the South African government needs to be seen taking action in the eyes of its own people. In the short term, South African security forces also need to re-establish order in the Johannesburg slum areas. In the long term, South Africa probably needs to shut the border.
That will, in turn, increase internal pressure in Zimbabwe. Change is badly needed there. If an increase in internal pressure results in Zimbabweans themselves realizing that Mr. Mugabe has to go and taking action to bring that about, so much the better. The electoral route would be better than violence, but the end of June is still a long way off and there is every reason to believe that Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF do not intend to leave power.
It may be the moment when popular action is the only recourse. Other nations have had so-called "color" revolutions. It may now be time for Zimbabwe's.