Mbeki to be dropped as mediator as Zuma gets tough on Robert Mugabe

It is a sign that South Africa’s stance on its northern neighbour has shifted.

Observers said Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe will find there is a new sheriff in town when Zuma visits his country soon.Zuma is expected to visit Zimbabwe in response to an invitation from the Zimbabwean government, but an official state visit is not yet on the cards.

Those around him said this week that he is keen to deal with the Zimbabwean situation as quickly as possible, in part to stem the flow of refugees to South Africa, but also to show Mugabe that Mbeki’s softly-softly approach is a thing of the past. They said Zuma is in contact with Mbeki about Zimbabwe, but that the relationship is “uncomfortable” and it would be better if the former president were out of the picture.

Mbeki’s loss of domestic power also means he is taken less seriously in multilateral forums such as SADC, which gives Mugabe some leeway, some people fear.

Morgan Tsvangirai, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader and Zimbabwe’s prime minister, visited Zuma last week at Luthuli House to complain about the lack of progress in implementing the settlement agreement signed in Zimbabwe late last year.

Tsvangirai is said to have complained about Mugabe’s disregard for clauses in the agreement concerning the removal of central bank governor
Gideon Gono and Johannes Tomana, the attorney general. He also apparently complained that the public service is stalling the approval of key appointments in his office.

Zuma is expected to be tough on Mugabe, despite a personal relationship formed in Mozambique during the struggle era. “Zuma will not allow Mugabe to parade him in front of everyone and say ‘This is my friend’,” said a close aide.

Zuma is adamant that he must meet the leader of the other MDC faction, Arthur Mutambara, before he meets Mugabe, so he is well briefed to confront Mugabe with the critical issues. “Zuma is fed up. He wants to see this thing moving,” the aide said, adding that the main contrast with the Mbeki era was that Zuma “takes Tsvangirai seriously”. Thabo used to think Tsvangirai [was] politically immature.  

Zuma says that may or may not be the case, but he is there and we have to work with him.” The aide said that Tsvangirai’s Western backers have exerted a powerful influence on Zuma’s approach to Zimbabwe. “Zuma knows the money for upliftment from the West will come only through Tsvangirai. And he can see that the West is willing to help — they’re now getting closer to making real contributions.”

The South African leader is expected to keep a close watch on the succession battles in Zanu-PF because of a possible internal revolt against Mugabe. The role of Joyce Mujuru, one of Zimbabwe’s two vice-presidents, and her husband, Solomon, as well as that of the army, would be carefully monitored.

A joint committee comprising Zanu-PF’s top leaders, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary general, was set up last year to “keep the channels of communication open between the two revolutionary parties”, but has apparently withered on the vine.

Despite this, Zanu-PF still maintains that the change of leadership has not changed the nature of its relationship with the ANC. “We were in the trenches with the ANC long before the MDC was conceived.

You must know that, even though there may be some hesitation, our friendship is much deeper than people think,” a senior member of the Zanu-PF politburo said.

Zanu-PF has pointed to comments by Zuma condemning Zimbabwe’s isolation as evidence that there will be no change of policy under his leadership.

But MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa said Zuma is close to the aspirations of the Zimbabwean people. “He identifies with our aspirations for free elections. He identifies with our desire for a vibrant opposition and a thriving economy. To us, he is a symbol of those aspirations.”

Other senior MDC officials recalled this week how Tsvangirai had gone for what they said was “a whole year” at the height of the Zimbabwe crisis before Mbeki would meet him.

Such is the animosity towards Mbeki that some of Tsvangirai’s lieutenants still blame him for the split in the MDC in 2005.

Tsvangirai is meeting regional leaders ahead of the SADC summit next month. He met Botswana’s President Ian Khama after his Zuma meeting and is scheduled to make further regional tops during the next four weeks. (M&G)