Zimbabwe's ruling party angered over comments made by mediation facilitator Lindiwe Zulu. Mmanaledi Mataboge reports.
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's outburst against South Africa's mediation facilitator Lindiwe Zulu was the clearest indication ever that "underlying tensions" between President Jacob Zuma's administration and the Mugabe government that have been bubbling under the surface are now out in the open.
In addition, the anger expressed by Mugabe and his government indicated that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has become tougher on Zimbabwe.
Mugabe called Zulu "some stupid, idiotic woman" and a "little street woman" during Zanu-PF's election manifesto launch last Friday.
His criticism came two days after Zimbabwe's government spokesperson told the M&G Online that Zulu is an "outsider" and a "mere back staffer" who makes executive pronouncements in Zuma's place.
This was a reaction to Zulu's statements that the regional bloc wanted Zimbabwe's election date to be postponed by two weeks from July 31.
South Africa believes that attacks on Zulu are directed at Zuma because he mandated his international relations adviser to facilitate the mediation process.
But some South Africans officials are also concerned about Zulu's "megaphone diplomacy".
An international relations department source told the Mail & Guardian that the "underlying tensions" are created by South Africa's decision to harden its stance towards Zimbabwe's government, in order to push for democratic reforms.
"It's not a secret that Mugabe has not been happy with South Africa's mediation in recent years. Since [former president] Thabo Mbeki left office and Zuma came in, the relationship has not been as cosy as before," said the source, who did not wish to be named.
"Mugabe and his people have not been able to do what they used to do with Mbeki. Zuma has put his foot down because they [Zimbabwe] wanted to circumvent the process."
Mbeki was accused of taking a soft approach towards Mugabe and Zanu-PF, thereby disadvantaging the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
What also frustrates Zimbabwe is that SADC leaders appear united in forcing democratic reforms in Zimbabwe because their countries' economies are negatively affected by the influx of Zimbabwean migrants.
"Zuma successfully lobbied SADC to support the [reform] efforts," said the international relations source. "Even presidents that Mugabe would have relied on agree with the approach. His attitude is no longer hardened towards South Africa only, but also [towards] SADC."
Mugabe has threatened to pull Zimbabwe out of the regional bloc "if SADC decides to do stupid things".
A senior Zanu-PF leader with diplomatic experience justified the party's attack on Zulu.
"She cannot claim that it's SADC's position to delay elections by a month. SADC asked us to approach the court for a two-week extension. We did so, and the court decided otherwise," he said, adding that Zanu-PF had lost confidence in Zulu's role in the mediation process.
South Africa's international relations and co-operation department spokesperson, Clayson Monyela, said the government was not aware of any tensions with Zimbabwe.
"Our relations with Zimbabwe are historical; they remain strong, solid and friendly," he said. "Our objective remains to assist Zimbabweans to implement their own agreements and take the country forward."
Although South Africa defended Zulu and said she was merely articulating a SADC position, there's an unofficial acknowledgement from both government officials and the ANC that part of the problem is that Zulu speaks her mind forcefully and sometimes does so without consulting anyone.
"She sometimes becomes too forward on issues. There's a diplomatic way of sounding firm, but being diplomatic with that," said the international relations department source.
"Some of the things she said were not necessarily off message, but it's the formulation that she gets wrong."
A member of the ANC's international relations subcommittee said: "She [Zulu] is taking advantage of the weakness in the presidency and is becoming the face of the mediation process."
Zulu said this week she still held the same position as she did last week when she refused to comment. "I know that the M&G sent questions to Mac Maharaj and he forwarded them to me but I will not respond," she said. "The interest here is not about me; it's about getting the situation in Zimbabwe sorted."
The ANC international relations subcommittee member said there are also hard party politics behind the tensions. "Zuma has always had a feeling that Mugabe favoured Mbeki towards [the party's 52nd national conference in] Polokwane [in 2007]."
Though the two former liberation movements have tried to paper over the cracks in the past few years, the ANC's international relations sub-committee member said the party's factional politics often led to dis-agreements with Zanu-PF.
"Towards [the ANC's elective]Mangaung [congress] they [ANC leaders] accused Zanu-PF of aiding the ANC Youth League to overthrow the party's leadership."
The league, whose expelled president Julius Malema enjoys strong ties with Zanu-PF's leadership, played a major role in the group that unsuccessfully campaigned for Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to replace Zuma as president at Mangaung.
But there won't be a complete breakdown in relations between the two neighbours. A South African government official said even if Zimbabwe disliked South Africa's stance on democratic reforms "Mugabe knows they need us for survival, in terms of the regional voice and to keep afloat economically".
But Zanu-PF no longer wants South Africa to pressure it to implement any of the remaining aspects of the global political agreement it signed with the MDC in 2008.
The Zanu-PF leader said South Africa's role as a mediator expired with the end of the unity government on June 30. "The Zuma facilitation was to lead Zim to elections," he said. "A new Constitution has been agreed on and elections are here." – Additional reporting by Jason Moyo