Option too ugly to contemplate

Recently, I have listened to discussions on what steps can be taken to ensure President Robert Mugabe opts for a peaceful resolution of the Zimbabwean imbroglio, rather than what many believe is his preferred panacea: a bloodbath, out of which he will emerge the victor.

One debate on SABC International featured two Zimbabweans living in exile in South Africa.

Another was on the BBC, with our old friend Wilf Mbanga among the panelists.

The moderator of the SABC debate was a sharp-witted woman with background details at her fingertips. She asked why Zimbabweans could not deal with Mugabe the way other Africans had eliminated dictators: a violent uprising.

One of the Zimbabweans, a lawyer, responded with remarkable equanimity: most Zimbabweans were squeamish about shedding more blood.

More than 70000 died during the struggle and after independence. If there was an uprising today, more than that number of Zimbabweans would probably perish.

There seems to be self-induced amnesia among some analysts of the tragedy. Whole families and clans may be itching for an opportunity to avenge the death of their kith and kin in the massacre now known as Gukurahundi.

In Bulawayo in the early 1980s, when I was editor of The Sunday News, a young man burst into my office, breathless and desperate, on a Saturday afternoon, as we laboured to put the paper to bed.

"I've just come from the rural area!" he said, eyes wide, wild. "They won't let me go to my village. I heard some of my people were killed. I wanted to check. The soldiers won't let me in. What can I do?"

Mugabe was to describe this conflagration as a "moment of madness", the bloodiest episode after independence: 20000 were killed by the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade.

For years, I have speculated on what happened to that young man: did he reach the village, to find brother, sister and cousin slaughtered?

All I could offer him was sympathy and solace, little else. I could not accompany him to the village, probably crawling with marauding 5th Brigade soldiers.

How many of them are there today - men and women with relatives slaughtered in Gukurahundi?

Any violent uprising would provide them with the pretext to settle old scores. A violent uprising cannot be ruled out entirely, yet we must all be prepared to reap the whirlwind in its wake.

Years ago, after he had been forced out as the chief justice of Zimbabwe, the late Enoch Dumbutshena once told me of his amazement at what he saw as the docility of the average Zimbabwean. What would it take, he asked, for them to rise up against Mugabe?

Dumbutshena tried, in vain, to challenge Zanu-PF at the polls, through his fledgling Forum Party of Zimbabwe in the 1990s.

His indictment on what he perceived as the spinelessness of his compatriots was this prediction: "Only when all their wages are forcibly paid into Zanu-PF coffers will they rise up."

The current crisis is almost equivalent to the Dumbutshena prediction: inflation has soared into outer space. What can the average salary buy?

President Thabo Mbeki must be made to appreciate why Zimbabweans would prefer for him to succeed with his mediation mission than for them to stage an uprising.

There are pent-up emotions whose violent release in a full-blooded revolution is too ugly to contemplate.