South Africa and Zimbabwe: the end of “quiet diplomacy”?

Roger Southall
2 May 2008

There is not much good news from Zimbabwe these days, but there is some growing hope from next door. The African National Congress (ANC) under President Thabo Mbeki has become notorious in recent years for effectively supporting the anti-democratic regime of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) under the cover of "quiet diplomacy".

Roger Southall is honorary research professor in the sociology of work programme, University of the Witwatersrand

Also by Roger Southall in openDemocracy:
"South African lessons for Kenya" (8 January 2008)

Mbeki has supposedly been attempting to mediate a solution between Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of Morgan Tsvangirai on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). But Mbeki's cover of neutrality was blown long ago by the gentility of his actions towards Mugabe and his clear determination to work towards a government of national unity which, in essence, would legitimate Zanu-PF domination and incorporate the MDC as a subordinate of the ruling power. Nor was it long since Mbeki appeared to have the strong backing of the ANC through its commitment to Mugabe as anti-colonial hero and to Zanu-PF as a fellow liberation movement. So promises have been constantly made to the west, to the African Union, to whoever is listening, that a solution to the Zimbabwe imbroglio was on its way. But it's all been like waiting for Godot. However, in a remarkably short time, things have begun to change, and Mbeki is being left behind by events.

Mbeki, justifiably, received credit for cajoling Zanu-PF into making the key concession that votes in the parliamentary election in Zimbabwe on 29 March 2008 would be both counted and published in the constituencies. The cellphone did the rest, for the MDC was able to communicate the results to the world before Zanu-PF could fiddle them. The result: a narrow victory for the MDC in the parliamentary vote, despite all the manifold pressures Zanu-PF and its militias had brought to bear on the voters.

The looming prospect of a similar result in the presidential election - in favour of Morgan Tsvangirai, and thus threatening Zanu-PF's hold on the state - precipated confusion in the Zanu-PF ranks. The response was (first) to delay announcement of the final result with the intention of manipulating it to minimise Mugabe's loss, and (second) to set the scene for a run-off election with Tsvangirai which Mugabe would win through the usual arsenal of intimidation: massive and widespread violence against government opponents and arrest, beatings, and brutality against would-be MDC voters.

A dissolving authority

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe:

Bev Clark, "Mass evictions in Zimbabwe" (13 June 2005)

Netsai Mushonga, "Two nights in Harare's police cells" (5 December 2005)

Andrew Meldrum, "Zimbabwe between past and future" (23 June 2006)

Conor O'Loughlin, "Zimbabwean travails" (13 September 2006)

Stephen Chan, "Farewell, Robert Mugabe" (20 March 2007)

Michael Holman, "Dizzy worms in Zimbabwe" (13 September 2007)

The Zimbabwean, "Zimbabwe votes - and waits" (31 March 2008)

Wilf Mbanga, "Zimbabwe's unfolding drama" (7 April 2008)

The crudity of it all has shocked even the SADC, which for too long has provided cover for Mugabe's misrule in the name of African solidarity. In particular, it has given courage to the leaders of countries such as Botswana and Zambia which have been forced to cope with the effects of much suffering and mayhem embodied in a massive influx of Zimbabwean refugees. Thus it was that the SADC summoned the courage to call an emergency post-election summit on Zimbabwe to which it invited both Tsvangirai and Mugabe, while taking the further symbolic step of denying the right of the latter to attend as head of state.

It was no wonder that Mugabe stayed away, sulking in his corner. Yet what was far more remarkable was Mbeki's response: having been pictured in Harare, en route to the summit, smiling and clasping Mugabe by the hand, he announced that there was no crisis and that what was needed was to wait patiently for the Zimababwe electoral commission's finalisation of the election results!

It was all too reminiscent of Britain's former prime minister James "Sunny Jim" Callaghan, as decent a man as ever climbed to the top of the greasy political pole, and one who was widely respected even by his opponents. Yet when he returned from a Commonwealth summit in the West Indies to a country with rubbish piling up in the streets during the "winter of discontent" in January 1979, his attempts to calm passions by declaring the situation manageable evoked the memorable tabloid headline: "Crisis? What crisis?" It mattered little that his words were parodied, for they invited the perception that here was a leader out of touch with ordinary people; that single headline accelerated his political demise and Labour's replacement by Margaret Thatcher.

It matters little, then, that Mbeki was to complain that his words had been taken out of context after the (Johannesburg) Sunday Times (13 April 2008) ran the same headline. What does matter was that, at a time when reports were pouring out of Zimbabwe of massive state violence against opponents, Mbeki's credibility - as analyst, leader and mediator - was shredded to pieces. He has never recovered, and probably never will. The commentators have had a field day, variously decrying and lampooning the president's position; the mood was caught perfectly by the popular Madam and Eve cartoon which for two whole weeks has depicted him with his head firmly wedged in a bucket of sand.

Mbeki has been struggling to bolster his presidential authority ever since his resounding loss of the ANC leadership to Jacob Zuma at the party's national conference at Polokwane in December 2007 (see "South African lessons for Kenya" [8 January 2008]). Yet nothing has done more to reinforce his image as "yesterday's man" than his recent dismal performance on Zimbabwe. It was not long ago that party discipline and the fear that criticism of Mugabe would be viewed as un-African and pro-west were able to smother growing misgivings within the ANC about "quiet diplomacy" vis-a-vis Zimbabwe. Polokwane represented a turning-point in this respect, not least because of the pro-Zuma momentum within the ANC provided by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Cosatu, to its immense credit, has long been critical of Mugabe and all his works - precisely because it has engaged in fraternal solidarity with the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (which had given birth to the MDC and which has been a prime victim of regime repression). It was not for nothing that Zuma's labelled Mbeki's supporters "the Zimbabweans" at Polokwane, invoking the image of a tyrant determined to cling on to power. Zuma's victory thereby paved the way for the erosion of the domestic foundations of "quiet diplomacy" (see "COSATU plots weekly anti-Mugabe protests", ZimOnline, 25 April 2008).

The jury stayed out until the holding of the Zimbabwean elections, hopeful that the mediated electoral reforms would provide for a tolerable solution to the country's manifest crisis. The MDC's parliamentary victory raised optimism in this regard, but the brutal antics of the regime dashed it. Today, it is as if all restraint has been let loose, and the ANC position on Zimbabwe is changing with dramatic suddenness.

A southern wind

The immediate precipitant was the media exposure of a Chinese ship, the An Yue Jiang, stacked to the brim with Chinese arms for the Zimbabwean defence force and waiting to be unloaded in Durban harbour. Swift, multi-pronged action - in the courts, the streets and the workplace - by a combination of churchmen, lawyers, civil-society activists and Cosatu trade unionists saw the ship slipping illegally out to sea, searching initially for an alternative southern African harbour but running up against the refusal of dockworkers across the subcontinent to offload its deadly cargo. Now, it is heading home to an Olympics-sensitive China, with the promise of an unexpectedly inflated bill for shipment being sent to Mugabe's already bankrupt regime.

Yet what was of such consequence was that this action was taken in the face of the Mbeki government's insistence that there was nothing it could do to stop the arms shipment, which was a normal trading relationship between two countries. Yet as Kader Asmal - until quite recently one of Mbeki's leading ministers - wrote in a letter to Business Day (26 April 2008), the government's "fatuous statement" that there was no "(United Nations) arms embargo against Zimbabwe" ignored the fact that international law allows a state to forbid the transit of goods that threaten "the peace, order and good governance of the territorial state" (see Raenette Taljaard, "We should all be up in arms", Times, 28 April 2008).

This magnificent popular victory, reminiscent of some of the finest solidarity actions of the international anti-apartheid movement, has been followed up by a remarkable shift it rhetoric. Zuma was careful during his visit to London on 22-24 April to provide his backing for the view (expressed now too by Zimbabwe's US ambassador) that a government of national unity should be formed, and to state that the ANC regards Zanu-PF as a fellow liberation movement; but he also stated his support for the principle that those who lose elections should stand down. Even more forcefully, in the wake of ongoing revelations about the regime's violence against its opponents, he has called Zimbabwe a "police state". Cosatu has joined in and is now referring to the Mugabe government as "an illegal regime". The Rhodesian leader Ian Smith must be laughing hollowly in his grave.

Zuma has observed the formalities in defending Mbeki's approach to the crisis, in saying that "Zimbabweans, assisted by SADC, will find a solution to this impasse", and in declaring that South Africa will not be "policeman to Zimbabwe". There is no suggestion yet that the more militant rhetoric will be translated into definitive action. Interestingly, however, there has recently been a flurry of speculation in the press by black commentators discussing the possibilities of direct external intervention. The thrust of such pieces has been that while military intervention by South Africa would be unwise and wrong, the African Union should be called upon to replace the SADC as managing the mediation process - and by implication, should be prepared to act as a peacekeeper. What is notable is not merely that this echoes the recently expressed sentiments of Morgan Tsvangirai, but that until just a few months ago, the voicing of such opinions would have drawn suggestions that the writers were pandering to South Africa's white right wing.

The significance of these shifting sands is hard to assess, yet that they do have significance should not be in doubt. The trends are happening at a time when the crisis in Zimbabwe is deepening before our eyes. It is appropriate to recall here a chilling statement made in 2002 by Didymus Mutasa, then Zanu-PF's organisational secretary: that, in relation to a country with 12 million people: "We would be better off with only 6 million people, with our own people who support the liberation struggle", Sunday Times, 1 September 2002).

The remark echoes a theme present in several speeches of Pol Pot during the escalation of tensions with Vietnam in 1977-78; and indeed, Kader Asmal himself has drawn parallels between the Khmer Rouge regime and what has been happening in Zimbabwe (see Wyndham Hartley, "Asmal breaks ANC ranks on Zimbabwe", Business Day, 5 October 2007). It is no accident that today there are increasing comparisons between Zimbabwe now with Rwanda just before the 1994 genocide, and mounting fears that present events are a precursor to civil war and an even greater humanitarian calamity.

Zimbabwe's reckoning, Mbeki's gift

In light of these developments, if the tangible movement of opinion within the ANC is of wider significance for South Africa and Zimbabwe, I would guess that it is fourfold.

First, recent developments in South Africa are indicative that pan-African solidarity with Mugabe inside the ANC is collapsing, and that there is a growing willingness to replace "quiet" with a far more forceful diplomacy. It may not be long before officials of the foreign-affairs ministry are scurrying off to the archives to find out in detail how former South African president BJ Vorster dealt with Ian Smith.

Second, there is now a much greater willingness to acknowledge the repressive nature of the Robert Mugabe regime, and to contemplate the democratic credentials of the MDC. The growing vilification of the Mugabe regime as illegal is crucial to this.

Third, the collapse of respect for Thabo Mbeki's mediation efforts similarly erodes regard for the SADC as a body capable of bringing about a solution. The concern expressed by bodies such as the African Commission on Human and People's Rights and calls for intervention by the African Union could provide the springboard for wider and more comprehensive international action under the framework of the United Nations.

Fourth, it could be that Jacob Zuma's growing willingness to distance himself from "quiet diplomacy" and to promise a more forceful South African stance on Zimbabwe will hugely increase his stature internationally. Conceivably this may add to domestic pressures for Zuma being granted amnesty for any alleged wrongdoings, for which he will soon be on trial.

It would be the greatest irony of his years in power if Mbeki's strategy of "quiet diplomacy"' towards Zimbabwe would come to be seen retrospectively as having laid the final stones in the path of his rival's route to the presidency.

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