WHEN South Africa chaired the UN Security Council last month, it resisted discussing the crisis in Zimbabwe on the grounds that it was strictly a domestic problem. The rioting in South Africa this week over the millions of illegal immigrants living in the country shows that the troubles there threaten regional stability.
South Africa, the largest economy on the continent, has long been a magnet for immigrants, much like the United States in the Americas. But the dictatorial misrule of Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, has forced millions of his countrymen to flee over the last decade. Between 1 million and 3 million are living in South Africa, the largest immigrant group there. Unlike the United States, the South African economy cannot provide jobs for a vast number of its own people, let alone immigrants. Casual labor in the informal sector is still better than almost anything available in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe, reacting to internal pressure, finally allowed a reasonably free election in March. But the Election Commission, apparently shocked by the results, delayed reporting them for five weeks. The commission said that Morgan Tsvangirai, the chief opposition leader, gained a plurality of the vote but not enough to avoid a runoff with Mugabe, scheduled for June 27. Given the delay in reporting the vote and informal tallies by independent observers, it is clear that Tsvangirai won a majority.
In advance of the runoff, Mugabe has unleashed his security forces to harass the opposition. The private International Crisis Group, in a report last week, predicted the runoff would be rigged in favor of the incumbent unless a deal was brokered for Mugabe to resign and for leaders of his party to join a coalition under Tsvangirai.
Tsvangirai is in South Africa, fearful of assassination if he returns home. South African President Thabo Mbeki, according to the crisis group, dislikes the opposition leader and wants one of Mugabe's associates to become president. Tsvangirai, however, is the popular vote leader and ought to lead Zimbabwe without having to endure the perils of an unnecessary runoff campaign.
In South Africa, the army intervened to stop the violence against immigrants. Elsewhere in the region, other nations are ready to help negotiate a transfer of power in Zimbabwe, but a mediation effort requires leadership from the dominant nation.
The need for regional stability and the plight of Zimbabweans, at home and abroad, require Mugabe to step down. This is South Africa's greatest test as a regional power since the fall of the apartheid government in 1994. Millions are suffering because of Mbeki's unwillingness to lead.