Now more than ever Muammar Gaddafi is an easy man to disbelieve. Between his escalating violence against his opponents and his crazed rants, we are compelled to apply the maximum incredulity discount to anything he says.
So when we heard via the BBC’s broadcast monitoring service that Libyan state television was bruiting details of a telephone conversation between the Brother Leader and President Jacob Zuma we were worried, but inclined to give Zuma the benefit of the doubt.
We know he is inclined to go-along-to-get-along, but surely he didn’t actually tell Gaddafi the African Union should ‘take decisive action and uncover the conspiracy that Libya is facing”? And could he really have suggested that the people of that country listen to their state broadcaster instead of the ‘tendentious reports circulated by foreign media outlets”?
Unfortunately, the presidency has now confirmed that the phone call took place and has declined to say anything further, other than that South Africa supports the United Nations security council resolution on Libya and deplores the loss of life in the conflict. It is a stunningly inadequate response and it leaves us with no option but to accept the possibility that President Zuma may have said exactly what Gaddafi’s propaganda machine claims he did.
In fact, there is only one thing Zuma could have told Gaddafi that would allow South Africa’s diplomacy to emerge from this mess with any credibility: ‘Colonel Gaddafi, you must now stand down, cease hostilities against your opponents and announce measures to transfer power. If you would like South Africa to assist, as we assisted in the past to facilitate your emergence from international isolation, we stand ready.”
Short of that, however, we would certainly feel a good deal more confidence in Zuma’s stance on Libya if he released a transcript of the conversation and if he substantively condemned Gaddafi’s actions in his own words instead of leaving it to spokespeople and deputy ministers to equivocate on his behalf.
The president certainly cannot claim that the conversation is protected any longer by the confidentiality that ordinarily attaches to such discussions. Gaddafi himself broke the seal when he used the call for propaganda purposes. It need not even be an embarrassing climb-down for Zuma.
As the Mail & Guardian went to press senior officials were telling us he had changed his tune on another key foreign policy issue in which South Africa has been singing out of harmony with most of Africa and the world: the Côte d’Ivoire impasse. Instead of insisting, as he has been, that there is some kind of parity between presidential election winner Alassane Outtara and Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to vacate office, Zuma now appears to accept the validity of the election result.
And it seems he will back the only plausible solution: Outtara assumes the presidency but, as a gesture of reconciliation, includes in his Cabinet members of Gbagbo’s team.
Far from making Zuma look weak the change of heart makes him appear amenable to rational persuasion. Let’s hope he learns to resist Gaddafi’s irrational wiles.
To read the second half of the editorial (“One rule for the giants?”) — click here.