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Editor’s Memo

Watching the ball

Iden Wetherell

ARE you a bit confused by statements emanating from Pretoria last week? If so, join the club. President Thabo Mbeki was reported to have assured his A

merican counterpart George Bush during his visit to the region last week that Robert Mugabe was on his way. Out that is!

Well, we have heard all this before, you may well say. Indeed we have. And let’s not forget that Mbeki assured Britain’s Tony Blair at their Chequers talks early last year that legislation offensive to democratic norms such as Posa and Aippa would be revoked. Mbeki repeated these assurances later in the year when addressing a local audience.

None of that happened. Instead, the roll-call of those arrested grew. Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa said there was no question of repealing Posa so long as it represented such a handy weapon for dealing with the MDC.

But none of this deterred the intrepid South African leader. He seemed to know better. He told the World Economic Forum in Durban last month that the Zimbabwe crisis would be resolved within a year.

Why should we believe him?

Because this time, we gather, he stands on firmer ground. Mugabe has finally understood the need to remove the single biggest obstacle to a resolution of the rapidly-deteriorating Zimbabwe crisis – himself.

He may go as early as December, we have been told by negotiators.

Whether he does or not remains to be seen. But the South Africans believe they have an unambiguous commitment to “leadership renewal” in Harare. We just wish they would share it with us! But there are some grounds for optimisim.

Bush is not likely to have swallowed hook, line and sinker assurances from Mbeki unless they were backed by his own assessment of the situation in Harare. He will have been glad to have Mbeki’s undertaking. Now he can say publicly that the South Africans have all this in hand. Mbeki, as Bush’s “point man”, will be accountable to the US for whatever progress is – or isn’t – made on the Zimbabwe issue.

This places Mbeki on the spot. It is the price he will pay for Washington’s temporarily lowered voice. But it is a heavy responsibility. He will actually have to deliver on what he has promised. That’s the hard bit.

Mugabe may indeed have agreed to go. Which may take the heat off Olusegun Obasanjo at the Abuja Chogm in December and even allow Mbeki a Mugabe-free South African parliamentary poll in April or June. But Zimbabwe’s political problems will be only just beginning.

Mugabe cannot foist his favoured successor on an unwilling party. What is currently a carefully orchestrated debate is likely to become a messy fight when the gloves come off. And if he wants any constitutional changes to smooth the process, that will mean securing the cooperation of the MDC, something that clearly sticks in the president’s throat.

The MDC have a few constitutional changes of their own in mind. They are unlikely to consent to participation in an election as flawed as the last. So just when we thought one roadblock had been removed, others will appear.

The Americans will not remain muted for long. Bush’s comments in Botswana suggest they will remain focused on the governance issue. Colin Powell’s article in the New York Times remains the policy template whatever his detractors may hope.

Mbeki has bought himself at best a couple of months of peace and quiet. But his assurances to Bush are being kept on the front burner. This isn’t going to go away until Mugabe fulfils his undertaking to Mbeki. That is the ball we are all watching.

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