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Mbeki buys time and space

The north is, for now, off the president’s back.

The e-mail was to the point: “What is your man playing at? Does your government really support this lunatic Mugabe or is this just politics?” This from an old friend in London who gambles other people’s money on the equities market.

Previous columns
by Richard Calland

One dealer is not a comprehensive sample. Yet he is representative of the prevailing attitude of the markets. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is a “lunatic”. Medically accurate or not, it is the truth in northern capitals. And, fair or not, many in London, Washington and elsewhere believe President Thabo Mbeki may be supportive of him.

The e-mail was written on March 18, the day before Mbeki and President Olusegun Abasanjo of Nigeria met with Australian Prime Minister John Howard in London to agree on the Commonwealth suspension of Zimbabwe.

Though anxious not to further antagonise Mugabe and thus reduce his negotiating power with the Zimbabwean leader, did Mbeki capitulate to pressure from northern leaders such as Tony Blair and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien? Not so, according to the British spin. The two Africans reached their decision after leaving Harare the previous evening with little to offer after their discussions with Mugabe.

Mbeki reportedly spoke with former British minister Peter Mandelson the morning of the Commonwealth meeting. That same day an article appeared in the British press from Mandelson promoting a “deal to get us out of the Zimbabwe impasse”.

Mandelson, with a better understanding of Africa than most of his former Cabinet colleagues, argued that the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad) represents “the best hope in a generation or more of Africa turning the corner after decades of spiralling poverty and despair”.

Mbeki, Mandelson said, would “be throwing away any chance of Nepad being taken seriously by G8 members if he does not move towards world opinion over Mr Mugabe. The choice is as raw as that.”

An analysis of the merits and demerits of Nepad must wait. But let us for the purpose of this debate accept that Nepad is the only game in town.

The depth of understanding of the Zimbabwean issue by northern heads of state is really no more nuanced than that of my dealer friend.

Objectively, Mbeki therefore had little choice if he was to save his vision of “African renaissance” through the Nepad plan that is to be considered at the G8 summit in Toronto in June.

Subjectively, his thinking may have been quite different. Mbeki himself, save for one convoluted sound-bite on March 15, said nothing for nine long days after the Zimbabwe election.

As various observer mission reports stuttered into the harsh light of day, everyone waited for the statement that mattered most to the majority of people interested in Zimbabwe and the region: what was South Africa’s position on the election and how would Mbeki express it?

But nothing came. And nothing will come of nothing, said King Lear to his daughter Cordelia. Increasingly, Mbeki appears like a political Lear, tragically blind to the worst consequences of his decision-making ? HIV/Aids being the most compelling example.

Zimbabwe too: as the nine days ebbed away, so too did Mbeki’s credibility. Government contacts told me he “was waiting for the [National Executive Committee] discussion” or, alternatively, that he “will only speak through the international structures that have been created to deal with the problem” [the Southern African Development Community and Commonwealth troikas].

While this accords with Mbeki’s preference for conducting international relations through multi-lateral organisations and suits his own bureaucratic instincts, it is also bad politics because it fails to deal with a reality.

In this case a reality in which the northern powers were saying this was a defining moment for his judgement and his plan for Africa.

This is why the line that Africa must not be collectively punished for Zimbabwe misses the point. There is no threat of collective punishment for Zimbabwe ? the north wrote Zimbabwe off years ago. Rather, the north is angered by the response of Africa to Mugabe and, because of its power, especially by South Africa’s.

It may be unfair, but it is a reality. Good politicians respond to such realities; bad ones escape to unreality. Sadly, some African National Congress national executive committee members have slipped into the latter realm. They were astonished by the Commonwealth decision. This is not what we agreed to, they say. To this extent, Mbeki deserves credit for making a difficult decision.

But his failure, as president of both South Africa and of a great liberation movement, to support clearly the right of citizens to freely and fairly choose their leader was a failure of leadership. Again, Mbeki underestimated the need to reassure people of his commitment to democracy.

Yet, Houdini-like, Mbeki bought himself time and space internationally with the Commonwealth decision. The north is, for now, off his back. This is ironic, given that those who now celebrate the Commonwealth decision as one that “restores faith” in Mbeki are invariably also those quick to write off the Commonwealth as a powerless anachronism.

The irony deepens when one considers that it is the institutional hangover from colonial times that is now sheltering Mbeki to pursue his principal strategy with Mugabe. It is a strategy that deserves understanding. It is based on two principles. The first is to engage with the man and try to persuade him to change and to implement the process of constitutional and other political reform.

Declaring, as Mbeki did in the weekly Cabinet statement, under the cover of the previous day’s Commonwealth announcement, that he had accepted the Zimbabwean election’s legitimacy and credibility was presumably a part of this strategy, however unpalatable.

The second principle is to create the space to promote and implement economic and other aid support for the Zimbabwean people.

Few in the north understand or care about poverty and inequality in Zimbabwe, or indeed anywhere. What the “defining moment” of Zimbabwe also reveals, therefore, is the huge gulf in understanding of the problems of the world between countries of the south, such as South Africa, and those of the north, such as the United Kingdom.

That these two, South Africa and the UK, which enjoy relatively strong relations, should have such divergent views on how to respond to the Zimbabwe question exposes the size of this gulf.

This hints at the two other underlying causes of the ANC’s response and its apparent bias against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). One is wholly unattractive; the other deserves support.

To the ANC, the MDC represents a threat not just to Zanu-PF but to national liberation movements in the region. If one such movement can be defeated by an assortment of trade unionists, businessmen and minority interests, then it might encourage a similar challenge to the ANC.

The other is more principled. There is a justifiable contempt for the way the north is seen to be imposing its view of who should govern Zimbabwe. It is to be expected that Mbeki’s policy-making and personal positioning will continue to attract interest. While his strategy has been given the space to breathe, the question now is: Will it work?

In a sense, therefore, Mbeki’s fate lies in the hands of Robert Mugabe. Few politicians would enjoy that, but Mbeki could yet prove to be more Houdini than Lear.

Archive: Previous columns by Richard Calland

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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