/ 26 March 2008

Zim meltdown: SA keeps counsel

South Africa has steadfastly refused to join in the chorus of criticism of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe despite paying an ever higher price for the crisis across its northern border.

As Zimbabwe goes to the polls this weekend, analysts believe South African President Thabo Mbeki may feel little enthusiasm towards Mugabe but will never embarrass his fellow leader nor want him replaced by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

According to Olmo Von Meijenfeldt of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa in Pretoria, Mbeki’s desire to carve out a niche as an advocate for the whole of Africa means he will never denigrate Mugabe.

”The most important for Thabo Mbeki and the South African government has been and is the African agenda and the African Union network,” he said.

”The people of Zimbabwe have been sacrificed for the larger good of the African agenda.”

With inflation running at over 100 000% and unemployment at more than 80%, up to a third of Zimbabwe’s 12-million population has fled to greener pastures — mostly to South Africa.

Mbeki has acknowledged the economic meltdown has damaged the region as a whole but he has still refused to publicly criticise Mugabe, maintaining instead a policy of ”quiet diplomacy”.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has said Mbeki needs to show ”a little courage” in dealing with the Zimbabwean president and called the South African leader’s attempts to mediate between the Zimbabwean ruling party and opposition a flop.

Chris Maroleng, a Zimbabwe specialist at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said South Africa is sceptical that speaking out about either the economic crisis or Mugabe’s crackdowns on opponents would help.

South Africa ”has argued that public criticism of President Mugabe has not created any real change, but in fact encouraged him to become more intransigent,” said Maroleng.

Mugabe, who has ruled the ex-British colony since 1980, has been ostracised by the West after allegedly rigging his 2002 re-election and for assaults by his security service on opposition leaders such as Tsvangirai.

Through much of Africa, however, Mugabe is still revered for his role in bringing an end to the former whites-only regime of Ian Smith as head of the Zanu (Zimbabwe African National Union) guerrilla movement.

Zanu (later renamed Zanu-Patriotic Front after a merger) has come to regard itself as the natural party of government in much the same way as the African National Congress (ANC) in Pretoria.

Moeletsi Mbeki of the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg says the common backgrounds explain why South Africa has little appetite for a change at State House in Harare.

”Southern Africa is ruled by nationalist parties created by the black elite who was fighting colonialism,” said Mbeki, the South African leader’s brother.

”The MDC is a new-age party created from the bottom, so you are having a clash of civilisations between the nationalist parties created by the black elite, which tells the people what to do, and the MDC new-style party created by the people which wants the elite to be accountable.”

Tsvangirai played no part in the war of liberation, instead making a name for himself as a union leader in the 1990s by leading mass protests.

Mbeki said none of the regimes which make up the Southern African Development Community (SADC) felt comfortable with such shows of people power.

”The SADC governments are not very interested in MDC winning the election because they see MDC-style parties as a threat to them.”

As well as a challenge from Tsvangirai, Mugabe is also being taken on by his former finance minister Simba Makoni, who broke ranks with Zanu-PF last month.

Von Meijenfeldt said Makoni might be more acceptable to Pretoria but gave him little chance of victory.

”He is an acceptable candidate for South Africa, for the West, [but] it’s not very likely Makoni will win. He came into the race very late.” – AFP