Mugabe's good son

The president’s softly-softly approach to Mugabe resembles the reluctance of a son to openly correct an authoritarian father

Imagine if Thabo Mbeki were as brave and as articulate as Barack Obama. Imagine if he were able to say about Robert Mugabe, as Obama did about his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, that while he disagreed with him, he would not renounce him: “As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me.”

These were the words Obama used in his landmark speech on race last month, to distance himself from his own troublesome father figure. It was an act of spectacular finesse, one worthy of a future president.
But in eight years of trying, Thabo Mbeki has been unable, similarly, to balance his supposed commitment to African democracy with his loyalty to Mugabe.

And so, last weekend, Mbeki found himself once more in Harare, once more performing the spectacle of filial appeasement. Fondly clasping Mugabe’s hand, he averred that there was “no crisis” in Zimbabwe. The smirk on the father’s face left no doubt about where the power in this relationship lay.

Unappetising though the performance might have been (not least, one might imagine, to Mbeki himself), there was both strategy and emotion behind it. We might judge the strategy to be discredited and the emotion to be unbecoming, but still, there is a need to understand both—if only to assess the possible role Mbeki might continue to play in the world of diminishing options now facing Zimbabwe.

Mbeki himself has described Mugabe to me as a father figure; one earned rather than inherited, for he played the key role in brokering an important peace between Mugabe’s Beijing-aligned Zanu and the Moscow-aligned ANC in the early 1980s. One gets the sense, however, that like many sons, Mbeki wishes fervently for the old man to drift quietly off into dotage—or at the very least to listen, for once, to his son’s advice.

For many, particularly in the Zimbabwean opposition, Mbeki’s filial loyalty to Mugabe disqualifies him from being an honest broker. Mbeki sees it another way: he believes that it is precisely this relationship that gives him access to the old man’s inner sanctum. Who but a son can drum sense into an age-inflamed father? This is the logic behind Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy”. We should not forget the role that he and his South African team played in brokering this benchmark election in the first place. But the fact that the poll is in effect now meaningless is, of course, a dramatic illustration of the limitations of Mbeki’s filial diplomatic policy.

Cynics might argue that it is in Mbeki’s interests for the poll to be nullified if Morgan Tsvangirai is to be the victor. Certainly, Mbeki has never disguised his disdain for the MDC leader and has for many years been trying to promote a “keep-it-in-the-family” type solution from within Zanu-PF. This is in part because, as a member of the clan himself, he understands profoundly that Mugabe and his cohort of struggle kleptocrats will never allow themselves to be defeated by outsiders.

The instrument for Mbeki’s ambitions in this respect was, for years, none other than Simba Makoni, the former finance minister who, failing within Zanu-PF to get Mugabe to go quietly, contested last month’s election as an independent—allegedly with Mbeki’s blessing. Mbeki sees Makoni as a mini-me: a Western-educated technocrat steeped in the struggle family, the ideal successor to Mugabe.

What then might Mbeki have said to Mugabe in their 90 minutes alone together last Saturday? Perhaps he was broaching the idea of a negotiated settlement, one which might even have floated the possibility of Makoni as a compromise candidate? The very thought of such negotiations is, of course, deeply offensive to the opposition, which could claim legitimately that if Mugabe has been able to steal their victory it is in part because he has been buttressed by regional supporters such as Mbeki in the first place. But even if Mbeki is complicit in the current crisis, it is a crisis nevertheless. And it is one that looks increasingly as though it can be resolved only through a negotiated settlement.

Of course, there are reasons beyond filial obligation and diplomatic strategy which influence Mbeki’s behaviour. With Zimbabwe, as with Aids, he becomes hardegat when backed into a corner and refuses to admit failure. He also has a tendency, when under fire, towards a relentlessly chipper optimism: “Don’t worry.

I’m on top of it. Everything’s going to be alright.” As Jeremy Cronin has pointed out, this can be profoundly disempowering to his comrades, symbolic of his top-down “I know-what-you-mere-mortals-cannot” approach. But it is the lifeblood of his politics and it would be unrealistic to imagine that he might jettison it in the twilight of his rule, even after so dramatic a rebuke at Polokwane last December.

In Zimbabwe, the end result of all this is that he has not been able to find a way—as Barack Obama did with Jeremiah Wright—to signal his public disapproval of Mugabe’s actions while keeping in with the Zimbabwe president, so as to be able to persuade him to relinquish power.

But remember this about all politicians: Obama distanced himself from Wright not because he wanted to, but because he had to. His acceptability to white voters depended on it. Mbeki, on the other hand, sees no strategic advantage, either for himself or for South Africa, in distancing himself from Mugabe. Depending on how you look at it, that makes him a far less able, or a far more constant, politician.

Mark Gevisser is the author of the biography, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred (Jonathan Ball)