By Justice Malala
WHEN South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki and his Nigerian counterpart, Olusegun Obasanjo, met at the G8 summit in Gleneagles last week, the warmth between them was unmistakable. <
The two have travelled the world together for more than six years, cajoling, arguing with and sometimes even shouting at Western leaders to come up with concrete steps to eradicate African poverty.
At the G8 summits in Genoa, Italy, and Kananaskis, Canada, they thought they were close to a deal – but were disappointed.
There is no leader on the African continent that either is closer to. Both recognise that, as the two most powerful countries on the continent, the failure of one will be the failure of all African countries.
Yet at the Commonwealth summit in late 2003 the two argued so bitterly that they refused to speak to each other.
While a majority of Commonwealth countries – with the African component led by Nigeria – bayed for action against President Mugabe, Mbeki fought to protect his northern neighbour.
The meeting was described as the most divisive in the Commonwealth’s history. Many, including Mbeki, said the Zimbabwe issue threatened to split the organisation apart.
Over the past six years Mbeki has been prepared to jeopardise his most vital political and personal relationships in defence of Mugabe. Even as police raze shacks in and around Zimbabwe’s cities – leaving hundreds of thousands homeless – he said he would wait for UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s envoy to finish her investigation.
Standing next to him, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso said he was disappointed by the African Union’s declaration that this was a domestic matter.
“This is a human rights crisis and human rights are not an internal matter. They should be the concern of all people, African, Asian and European,” said Barroso.
Mbeki did not flinch. The Sussex-educated president believes “quiet diplomacy” – a strategy whereby he keeps Mugabe on side to bring about gradual change – will work.
In more than six years of “quiet diplomacy” Mugabe has broken every promise he has made to reform. Another defence Mbeki has used for not condemning Mugabe is that he believes Zimbabwe’s problems were caused by Britain.
In 2003 he complained that Britain failed to pay a “measly” £9 million for land redistribution. But Mbeki travels alone. Civic leaders in South Africa – from Nelson Mandela to Archbishop Desmond
Tutu to Cosatu, the powerful trade union congress, opposition parties and even members of Mbeki’s cabinet – have expressed outrage at human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
Mbeki and his fast-diminishing coterie in the ruling ANC have refused to budge.
Even when senior South African election observers were beaten up by pro-Mugabe youths in the 2002 election, Mbeki ensured that the team declared the election free and fair.
In November last year, after Tutu questioned “quiet diplomacy”, Mbeki attacked him as having no respect for the truth.
On its website the ANC sought to discredit Tutu, accusing him of having been a struggle hero of the West and white South Africans – not South Africa’s black masses.
Last year Mugabe called Tutu “an angry, evil and embittered little bishop”.
Even Mandela has declared that people like Mugabe “want to die in power because they have committed crimes”.
Cosatu – the country’s biggest trade union federation and an ally of the ANC – has been accused of recklessness for its Zimbabwe human rights campaign. After being kicked out of the country on a fact-finding mission last year, secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi said: “The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) will stand no chance if a government such as Zimbabwe willingly disregards its own laws in this manner. The continent will go nowhere if its leaders can act with impunity.”
Mbeki knows this. He knows too that he stands alone in South Africa on Zimbabwe. The business community, which backed “quiet diplomacy”, now calls on him to speak out. At the centre of this is his belief that calls for Mugabe’s departure are racially-motivated. He will not be lectured to by the West.
“It is clear some within Zimbabwe and elsewhere in the world, including our country, are following the example set by (Ronald) Reagan and his advisers to ‘treat human rights as a tool’ for overthrowing the government of Zimbabwe and rebuilding Zimbabwe as they wish. In modern parlance, this is called regime change,” he said in a letter after the Commonwealth meeting.
In the past few weeks of mass evictions in Zimbabwe, people have died. More than 1,5 million are homeless. All are black. Where is Mbeki’s solidarity with them?
*Justice Malala is a political analyst, journalist and the founding editor of ThisDay newspaper, Johannesburg.