/ 31 January 2008

Mugabe blows hole in quiet diplomacy

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe may have dealt a fatal blow to Pretoria’s “quiet diplomacy” by calling an election in the middle of mediation efforts by his South African counterpart, say analysts.

Mugabe’s announcement last Friday that polling would be on March 29 appeared to pre-empt a bid by South African President Thabo Mbeki to get an agreement between Zimbabwe’s government and opposition on the framework of the ballot.

Mbeki, who has steadfastly refused to publicly criticise Mugabe despite the economic meltdown of Zimbabwe, has once again bitten his lip over what analysts have interpreted as an insult and a repudiation of his softly-softly approach.

“I am not surprised any longer by whatever Mugabe does. He has always treated Zimbabwe as his personal fiefdom,” political analyst and author Xolela Mangcu said.

“His latest decision is a demonstration of the failure of Mbeki to persuade Mugabe to behave decently.”

Mbeki was handed the poisoned chalice of mediating between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) last April by his fellow leaders from the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

The 14-member bloc had hoped that as the leader of the region’s powerhouse, Mbeki was best placed to bring pressure to bear on his northern neighbour after Mugabe’s security forces had beaten up several MDC leaders.

But despite Mbeki’s assertion on a trip to Harare a fortnight ago that “good progress” had been made in the talks, the opposition was growing increasingly frustrated at the South African’s failure to squeeze concessions from Mugabe.

‘An insult to Mbeki’

Senior MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa saw no reason to spare Mbeki’s blushes, describing the election announcement as a “slap in the face” for his mediation.

Dirke Kotze, a researcher at the Pretoria-based University of South Africa, said that Mbeki’s task was now even harder, if not impossible.

“Mugabe’s decision to unilaterally fix the election date will definitely complicate the mediation process. It may even terminate it,” Kotze said.

“It is an insult to President Mbeki and a slap in the face of the opposition … a negative action by Mugabe to suggest that the negotiation was not making progress, and so, it could as well come after the poll.”

South African Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad, one of Mbeki’s closest confidantes, declined to say whether the president had received prior notice from Mugabe about the election announcement.

“I do not want to venture into the Zimbabwe situation at the moment,” he told reporters at a regular briefing in Pretoria.

“The talks and facilitation [mediation] are of such a sensitive nature. To that extent, I would rather prefer the president to do the briefing on Zimbabwe.”

Adam Habib, executive director of South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council think tank, said that Mbeki could not help but feel slighted by Mugabe, who has long resented the idea of anyone interfering in Zimbabwean politics.

“It will definitely unsettle any mediation effort and undermine the position of Mbeki as a mediator. It is Mugabe’s direct slight on Mbeki,” said Habib.

Mbeki has been widely criticised for the so-called quiet diplomacy, even though up to three million people are thought to have fled into South Africa from Zimbabwe where the official rate of inflation is now nearly 8 000%.

“This quiet diplomacy has not worked,” said Mangcu.

“There is a need to adopt a new approach to the Zimbabwe problem.” — AFP