WITHIN days of his diplomatic triumph in Harare, uniting seemingly irreconcilable forces, he had been laid low by his own party.
The story of Thabo Mbekiâ€™s defeat by rivals within the ANC has all the ingredients of a powerful drama. But it also contains an example of humility which South Africaâ€™s neighbours could learn from. How many African leaders have agreed to step down when their time was clearly up? You can count them on one hand. Mbeki still had six months to run in his term.
But what President Jakaya Kikwete pointed out rather tellingly at last weekâ€™s ceremony was that a new generation of leaders have replaced the standard-bearers of the independence struggle. Kikwete is himself among the youthful successors. In fact there has been a change of leadership three times since Mwalimu Julius Nyerere stepped down.
Then there is Botswana where Africaâ€™s youngest leader has spoken out against the tyranny of Africaâ€™s oldest.
That explains the sustained applause his name evoked at every mention on September 15.
The other hero of the hour was of course Thabo Mbeki who presided over Zimbabweâ€™s Rainbow revolution. Not the most popular figure in opposition circles, he was nevertheless appreciated for his patience and persistence in resolving a crisis Zimbabweans themselves were unable to resolve.
But within a week of Mbekiâ€™s triumph he had fallen upon his sword. Confronted by evidence of a mounting revolt of opponents in his own party and unfailingly loyal to the ANC that bred him, he accepted their letter of recall with calm dignity. While South Africaâ€™s management of its political crisis has absorbed observers, nobody seems to have noticed the implications for our own. Mbekiâ€™s departure leaves a vacuum in regional diplomacy which will be impossible to fill. His successors have none of the skill or clout to deal with the obdurate despot to the north. Nor do any of the Sadc leaders who gave Mbeki his mandate.
This comes at exactly the moment the unity process has run aground â€” again.
Here all parties were delinquent in failing to settle the distribution of power within the new regime before the signing ceremony. Following his talks with Mugabe last Thursday, Morgan Tsvangirai disclosed that: “They wanted everything â€” all the key ministries”.
This would be suicidal for the new order. Power-sharing requires goodwill and sincerity, not greed and obstinacy. Anyway, elementary good sense would dictate that any attempt to retain the Ministry of Finance, one of the many stumbling blocks last Thursday, we gather, would see a stayaway by international lenders and investors.
Zanu PF needs reminding that the whole negotiations exercise had one principal objective: to prevent Mugabe and his cronies from inflicting further damage on the economy by populist posturing of the sort that has caused incalculable damage over the past decade. The collapse of agriculture, education, health, industry and commerce and the emigration of hundreds of thousands of our citizens are all the direct product of a regime that refuses to listen or change. No international lender of note will sink money in a government that persistently declines to govern well.
By clinging to ministries like Finance and Agriculture, Zanu PF is telling the world it wonâ€™t change its stripes.
Tsvangirai has described Mbekiâ€™s departure as “a blow”. Without his supervision, it is believed, Mugabe will feel less inclined to make concessions in the distribution of cabinet portfolios. But without a genuine sharing of power there can be no long-term settlement.
Those around Mugabe donâ€™t seem to appreciate this elementary point. They think the agreement is designed to hire the MDC to dig them out of the hole they have been working on for 10 years. They want to hang on, abusing power and behaving badly.
The US embassy supplied 54 visas for Mugabeâ€™s entourage to the UN General Assembly this week. That includes his wife and son, according to press reports.
Meanwhile, Tsvangirai canâ€™t secure a passport from the Registrar-General, a Mugabe loyalist.
Nothing more encapsulates the extent of the problem. Zanu PF-controlled broadcasters and newspapers pour forth a toxic lava of hate. Opposition leaders and independent newspaper editors face time-consuming court cases for allegedly bringing the state into disrepute by telling truth to power.
Mugabe declines to negotiate in good faith an all-inclusive government but instead takes his family and officials on a trip to New York.
Mbeki, it is reported, may stay on as mediator, but this would be problematic if he goes to court to rebut charges made in the Nicholson judgement.
Last weekâ€™s celebrations came much too soon. The seriousness and flexibility needed to make the settlement work are altogether absent. That is the real story this week.