Mbeki: Bush's point man in Africa

It was all sweetness and light as South African President Thabo Mbeki and United States President George Bush faced the world media in Pretoria after a brief meeting.

At times breaking into broad smiles, the leaders were keen to put a positive spin on the meeting and Bush’s African trip.

When asked about Zimbabwe, the leaders said they were “of one mind” about the urgent need to address the political and economic needs of the country.

Mbeki repeated his stance that the future of Zimbabwe rested with the people of Zimbabwe.

“We have urged the government and the opposition to get together and seriously tackle these issues. It’s very important to move forward with urgency to find resolution with their issues. But when ordinary people are hungry, we can’t allow that situation to go on,” he said.

Bush dealt the Zimbabwean opposition a serious blow when he approved of Mbeki as a neutral and honest broker of talks between the Zimbabwean government and its opposition.

In response to a journalist’s question, Bush reiterated his confidence in Mbeki as an honest broker of talks who could help the Zimbabweans come up with a solution.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had agitated all week to be afforded an opportunity to meet President Bush and possibly raise their reservations about Mbeki’s impartiality.

Even yesterday the MDC supporters protested outside the Union Buildings but were not afforded the opportunity to meet Bush.

Mbeki repeated the need to find a political solution and “we would indeed count very much on such economic and financial support as would come from the United States afterwards in order to address the urgent challenges that face Zimbabwe.”

Bush said they had not used the Zimbabwe issue “to create a tension that doesn’t exist”.

He said that Zimbabwe was an important country for the economic health of Africa and a free and peaceful Zimbabwe had the capacity to deliver a lot of the goods and services in order to relieve suffering on the continent.

“It is a very sad situation that has taken place in that country. President Mbeki is working with the issue. We share the same outcome. It is important for us to speak out when somebody’s freedom has been taken away from them. President Mbeki is the point man. He’s in touch with the parties involved,” said Bush.

Before the press conference, photographers and cameramen agonised as Bush stepped out of his limousine and the only image their cameras could capture was the backs of his and Mbeki’s heads.

“Pulitzer prize shot,” grumbled one of them.

A sigh of relief rippled through the camera crowd as the two men and their first ladies rose to the occasion, and smiled at the lenses from a landing on the steps towards the Presidency’s entrance.

Bush and his motorcade arrived shortly after 9.30am. By that time many journalists had been there for two-and-a-half hours, staking out their vantage points and complaining about the cold.

They saw two red carpets being rolled out to form a 25m walk-way for the presidential feet. A vacuum cleaner was duly brought out afterwards to remove any persistent specks of dust.

Meanwhile a few men in camouflage uniforms arrived, carrying what looked like clarinet cases. When they were later spotted on balconies of the west wing of the Union Buildings, it became apparent that the “clarinets” might be quite deadly.

In the background the SA Air Force band could be heard striking up a few notes to warm up.

Two members of the national ceremonial guard marched up to the flagpoles to hoist the Stars and Stripes alongside the South African flag.

While sniffer dogs were nosing through their equipment and bags, the journos had to queue and spread-eagle for a metal detector search.

South African ministers and deputy ministers, arriving one by one, were spared this ordeal. A protocol official lined them up behind the red carpet on one side of the entrance. The other side was reserved for American dignitaries.

The band marched closer to the tune of Washington Post. The ceremonial guard followed, forming a green and gold wall between those with notebooks and cameras, and those with titles.

On the US side, US Secretary of State Colin Powell was among the first to arrive.

Finally Mbeki and his wife Zanele came down the stairs. The buzz of a few Tshwane Metro policemen’s motorbikes announced action. More motorcycles with military police followed, as did a number of security vehicles and a long black limousine. But it was only a second black limousine—two are used as a security measure—that delivered the cargo the cameras were waiting for.

Laura Bush stepped out first, clad in a bright coral-coloured suit with a knee-length skirt. This kind of outfit seemed to be the popular choice among the important women.

Zanele Mbeki chose cobalt blue with high-heeled pumps in the same colour. Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s was blue-grey with red trimmings and Bush’s security adviser Condoleezza Rice played it safe in dark grey.

Dark suits were the preferred male outfit, but Bush—when he finally did turn around—could be seen wearing a bright red tie. All the senior American officials took the salute as the band played The Star-Spangled Banner, but only Mbeki and Deputy Health Minister Renier Schoeman held their palms to their chests during the playing of Nkosi sikelel’ i-Afrika and Die Stem.

There seemed to be quite a few jokes as Mbeki introduced his line-up of ministers to Bush, and Bush returned the gesture with his inner circle.

Not all people involved in the massive operation had much to laugh about though. Inside the Union Buildings, an American security official seemed to have got on the nerves of a South African one for being where he should not be.

It ended with the American saying through clenched teeth: “I’ll move, don’t put your hands on me. Don’t put your hands on me.”

The construction workers who are normally on site at the Union Buildings were probably among the few who enjoyed the day. They were nowhere to be seen, having hidden their uncompleted work behind screens of hessian and rows of rows of potted plants. - Sapa

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal.
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