Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Low Expectations of Mbeki Visit

South African president’s track-record as mediator inspires little confidence among Zimbabweans as he makes another attempt to forge a deal.
By Joseph Nhlanhla
With only days to go before Zimbabwe’s much anticipated presidential run-off, South African leader Thabo Mbeki has paid a surprise visit to Harare to meet President Robert Mugabe, amid growing international concern about the escalating political violence.

Mbeki held separate meetings on June 18 with Mugabe and his challenger in the June 27 vote, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.

The South African president has sought to position himself as a neutral player in the dispute, and over recent months has acted as mediator in political negotiations sponsored by the Southern African Development Community, SADC, a grouping of regional states.

However, the MDC believes Mbeki is too close to Mugabe and has failed in the role of mediator. The South African leader has refused to condemn Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party in the face of evidence that they have mounted a concerted campaign of political violence to intimidate voters and destroy the MDC’s capacity to mobilise support in rural areas.

The visit comes as Mugabe’s rhetoric grows increasingly ominous. He has told party supporters he will not step down even if Tsvangirai wins, and says he is prepared to “go to war” if he loses. According to the government mouthpiece The Herald, Mugabe told supporters in a June 15 speech, “We are not going to give up our country for a mere X on a ballot. How can a ball point pen fight with a gun?"

Mbeki received a lukewarm reception from the opposition. MDC deputy spokesperson Thabitha Khumalo telling IWPR the visit had come at a point where many people believed for Mbeki to acknowledge there was a crisis in Zimbabwe, “bodies should start filling the streets and floating in the rivers”.

The South African leader says his comment, made in April after the first round of elections, that there was no crisis in Zimbabwe was quoted out of context, but it did lasting damage to his credibility as it appeared to confirm that he favoured Mugabe.

Dissatisfaction with Mbeki’s role prompted Tsvangirai to write a scathing letter to him outlining his party’s grievances.

On June 15, South Africa archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke out against Mbeki's policy of "quiet diplomacy". In an interview with Al Jazeera TV, he said the president “chose to remain silent even when Zimbabwe’s crisis was at fever pitch.”

In a move apparently designed to protect Zimbabwe from international criticism, South Africa, which currently chairs the United Nations Security Council, resisted moves to hold a debate on Zimbabwe, on the grounds that the African Union and SADC were already dealing with the crisis.

However, the UN announced on June 19 that United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to chair a meeting of the Security Council to discuss Zimbabwe. The announcement came after a UN special envoy met President Mugabe a day earlier to talk about ways of ending the violence and ensuring a free and fair vote.

While Mbeki still argues that Zimbabwe will be able to go ahead with the election run-off and produce a credible outcome, another top South African politician, Jacob Zuma, this week added his voice to the international criticism, saying he did not believe the poll would be free and fair.

Zuma, the president of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, has taken a tougher line on Zimbabwe than Mbeki. He has pledged to send a high-powered ANC delegation to monitor the poll, but the Zimbabwean authorities have not said whether they will allow it to operate.

On the streets of Zimbabwe, many people are disappointed with Mbeki.

Joel Tsvaki, a high school teacher in Bulawayo, said he lost faith in Mbeki as a mediator after he failed to persuade Mugabe to concede defeat in the first round and step down.

“Everybody knows we are fed up, but not Mbeki and Mugabe,” he told IWPR. “He has not said anything about the continuing violence, where people are being killed for voting for the party of their choice.”

Moses Lubimbi, who recently returned from South Africa after living there for many years, believes Mbeki should have been replaced by another African mediator as soon as the MDC raised its objections.

“There is nothing to show us Mbeki has succeeded in his efforts,” said Lubimbi.

Analysts say Zuma, who is now being tipped to become the next president of South Africa, could be Zimbabwe's last hope if Mugabe steals the June 29 poll.

Joseph Nhlanhla is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.

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