UNITED States President George Bush’s meeting with his South African counterpart Thabo Mbeki in Pretoria last week produced an unexpected meeting of minds between the two leaders on how to deal with the Zimbabwe crisis.
The outcome of their encounter appears to have surprised many, including perhaps themselves, as it was preceded by simmering diplomatic tension between Washington and Pretoria.
Bush said after the meeting that he had no intention to “second-guess” Mbeki’s “tactics” on Zimbabwe. He said Mbeki was the “point man” and they desired “the same outcome” on the matter.
“Look, we share the same objective. The President (Mbeki) is the person most involved; he represents a mighty country in the neighbourhood who, because of his position and his responsibility, is working the issue,” Bush said.
“He is working on it very hard,” he said. “He’s in touch with the parties involved. He is making — he believes — good progress. And the United States supports him in this effort.”
This appeared at first glance like a dramatic change of approach to the Zimbabwe issue. Mbeki said Bush and himself were “absolutely of the same mind” and would work together to unscramble the convoluted crisis.
But Bush would not have been so compliant, observers say, if he had not been given very firm assurances on Mugabe’s exit.
Political analysts say Bush and Mbeki’s position on Zimbabwe reflected what transpired at their private meeting.
South Africa’s Institute of Security Studies analyst Chris Maroleng said Mbeki apparently gave Bush guarantees that the Zimbabwe crisis was moving towards a resolution.
“Some sort of assurances were apparently made by Mbeki to Bush on the issue,” he said. “It seems there was an understanding on the basis of those assurances that Bush should not scuttle Mbeki’s initiatives by maintaining a hardline stance against Mugabe.”
The Zimbabwe Independent reported last Friday that Mbeki had assured Bush that Mugabe was on his way out and elections could be held by June next year.
Reports say Mugabe could quit or at least express the intention to do so during his party’s annual conference in December. Zanu PF is expected to choose new leaders during its congress next year.
In April, Mugabe indicated he could soon be retiring and declared his succession debate, hitherto a taboo within the ruling party, open.
Analysts say it was unlikely that Bush, given his firm approach, especially towards rogue regimes, would change his stance without guarantees that Mugabe was going.
South African Institute of International Affairs analyst Ross Herbert said Mbeki used discreet statecraft techniques to ensure Bush appreciated the benefits of friendly engagement as opposed to compulsion.
“I think Bush found Mbeki’s approach persuasive,” he said. “But I don’t think the US will give Mugabe an easy ride after this. There are also reports that Mbeki struck a deal to ease Mugabe out of power softly and that there could be American funds for Zimbabwe’s reconstruction in return. This might explain the situation.”
However, Herbert said Pretoria’s belief that if it treated Mugabe with kid groves he might be willing to go soon was “dangerously naïve”.
He said it would appear the African Union summit in Maputo last week also sought to propitiate Mugabe for the same reason.
Mugabe was appointed one of the five vice-presidents of the AU and chaired a session of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development although his regime used to claim that the economic continental recovery programme was a neo-colonial project.
Mugabe’s spin-doctor Jonathan Moyo said Bush’s change of position after meeting Mbeki was a “loud climb-down”. But MDC secretary-general Welshman Ncube said Bush and Mbeki’s meeting was significant in that it created a consensus on Zimbabwe.
“It is very clear that there was consensus that we have a crisis of governance in this country as opposed to Zanu PF red-herrings on land and a contrived bilateral dispute with Britain,” Ncube said.
“They spoke of the need to resolve economic problems, the need to extend the frontiers of democracy and freedom and not any of those official whitewash claims. They also spoke the language of urgency.”
However, South Africa’s Witwatersrand University professor of International Relations John Stremlau said Bush did not change his stance.
“I don’t see Bush’s position softening but I see him playing a supporting role to Mbeki’s diplomacy to secure a regime change in Zimbabwe,” Stremlau said.
“Mbeki wants a new regime in Zimbabwe which reflects all shades of political opinion, something like a government of national unity. The Americans are prepared to give financial incentives to consolidate a regime- change effort and revive the Zimbabwean economy.”
Stremlau said different interest groups claimed for different reasons that Bush had changed his posture.
“I don’t see it exactly like that,” he said. “The US is still outspoken on the strategic objectives around issues at stake in Zimbabwe but it has changed tactics to ensure harmony with the South African position.”
Observers say the US would now concentrate on strengthening internal and external agents of change, instead of trying to secure regime change through threats.
Prior to Bush’s trip there were combative statements by the Americans against Mugabe’s regime and uneasy exchanges between Washington and Pretoria.
US Secretary of State Powell set the tone for Bush’s visit by unleashing a broadside against Mugabe in the New York Times denouncing his “violent misrule” and accusing him of wrecking the economy through “governmental mismanagement and unchecked corruption”.
He pledged US support for the “brave men and women resisting tyranny in Zimbabwe”. However, Moyo reacted with anger claiming Powell was an “Uncle Tom” and a “sell-out against people of colour”.
The US embassy in Harare hit back and condemned the state media, which carried Moyo’s comments, for using “racial slurs” to defend Mugabe’s leadership failures.
Unfazed by Moyo’s venomous remarks, Powell continued with his diplomatic offensive against Harare. He said Washington would urge Mbeki to step up pressure on Mugabe to come to the negotiating table with the opposition MDC.
This provoked a hostile reaction from Pretoria. South African Foreign Affairs spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said people should ignore Powell’s remarks, while Mbeki said it was irresponsible for the American official to make it appear as if Pretoria’s policies were made in Washington.
Bush continued to insist that Mugabe had to be confronted to end the suffering of Zimbabweans. Mugabe, clearly angered by these comments, urged his supporters not to be intimidated by Bush’s visit.
Conveniently oblivious to his regime’s own record, Mugabe labelled Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair “liars” and “criminals” who should be tried for genocide over the Iraq war.
Taking their cue from their political handlers, the state media went on an anti-American crusade.
But the Americans refused the invitation to a mudslinging match. Washington maintained that Mugabe should stop despotism and economic vandalism. Bush spoke in Gaborone when meeting President Festus Mogae of Zimbabwe’s crisis caused by “rank bad governance”.
Whatever Bush and Mbeki discussed at their meeting in Pretoria last week, it is clear that the two agreed Mugabe should go and as a matter of urgency. Significantly, despite the occasional outburst, ministers in Harare appear to have accepted that inevitability.