How Zimbabwe is a window to Mbeki’s mind

Donwald Pressly | Cape Town, South Africa


The riddle over South Africa’s proposed loan to bail Zimbabwe out of trouble with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has become a mirror of the personality of President Thabo Mbeki. The outward image is not what is

going on within, or behind the scenes.

There is little doubt Mbeki — now six years into his 10-year presidency — wants Africa to succeed. Indeed, he has developed the unfortunate image of spending more time on his aircraft, visiting other states, than at home. A glance at his international flight schedule — recently provided to Parliament — is testament to this.

But Mbeki — and his staff — are acutely aware that Africa does not enjoy a positive image in the world. His speeches to Parliament have referred to the dictatorships of Africa. He recently spoke grimly at a conference of African academics of meeting a minister of an unnamed African country who gave his address card to him. The address was one in France.

Mbeki may not have the spin-doctoring support team to make his image look good. He simply doesn’t have the Peter Mandelsohns or the Alastair Campbells that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has had. If anything, his advisers are not publicly known — and certainly have not succeeded in changing the growing perception of Mbeki as a remote, even enigmatic, figure.

But Mbeki is a key player — perhaps, indeed, the player — in the vision that the 21st century is the African century. It is he who has driven this vision.

Mbeki has focused attention on the continent where the new renaissance will occur. He desperately wants black Africa to succeed — and he knows that even if South Africa achieves 6% economic growth and cuts unemployment significantly in the years ahead, it will not gain what it deserves unless the bulk of Africa succeeds.

The urban legend that Americans can’t tell the difference between a Nigerian and a South African because they are all part of a dark continent holds more than a measure of truth, and Mbeki knows this very well.

Therefore, countries like Zimbabwe — now effectively the polecat of Africa — have to succeed as well.

However, the perception that Mbeki is doing nothing about that renegade and increasingly failed state is wrong. It is clear from a little scratching below the surface that he, indeed, wants to do something about that country.

For example, Mbeki has met church leaders from South Africa who want to assist in resolving the President Robert Mugabe-created humanitarian crisis.

Mbeki knows full well that Mugabe is a problem. The difficulty is that the West — and the largely white official opposition in South Africa — sees him doing little about it. He talks of the need for land reform in Zimbabwe.

Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has also referred to South Africa’s need to take a cue from the Zimbabwean land-reform process. She has, more or less, retracted what she said, but their public stances have not gone down well with the minorities in South Africa and investors abroad.

It is clear that Mbeki does not find it easy to deal with Mugabe publicly. The South African government points out that South Africa did not assist in sending assistance to rebel movements in Central African states. It will not do such a thing to support any rebel movement in Zimbabwe.

South Africa has played a mediating role, both diplomatically and militarily, in various African states. Mbeki does not feel comfortable with using military or overtly diplomatic action, which would be seen as taking sides in Zimbabwe.

It is frequently pointed out that not even the Zimbabwean opposition Movement for Democratic Change has called for sanctions — or military action — against that country.

The rationalisation of South Africa’s stance is that it is not easy to impose sanctions or take punitive action against Zimbabwe, even though the ruling African National Congress played a key role in using such tactics against the former South African apartheid government.

The situations, it is argued, are different. South Africa was an illegitimate state ruled by a minority. The majority had risen up against the state and the international community had — with widespread support — imposed sanctions and even supported military action.

It is clear that South Africa wants a resolution of Zimbabwe and is sticking to conditions for financial aid to Zimbabwe. South Africa has agreed in principle to loan it money — but it is clear that Zimbabwe won’t get a cent if the conditions are not accepted and adhered to. These conditions include political stability and economic recovery.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma underscored this point in the National Assembly last week. In the rather inarticulate and patronising manner for which she has become known, she asked how money could be given to Zimbabwe if it did not want it.

It was the closest she will probably ever get to saying that what Mugabe is doing in that country is unacceptable. She has read her own president’s mind pretty well. She does, after all, owe her job to him.

South Africa talks in riddles — at least in public — on this matter, and will probably continue to do so.

But the reality is that there is discomfort with Mugabe’s actions. And when the crunch comes for Mugabe’s regime, Mbeki will find it very hard to support it in perpetuating injustice. — I-Net Bridge

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