April 16, 2008

Zimbabwe’s political crisis enters South Africa domestic politics

South African President Thabo Mbeki's refusal to take a tougher line on neighbouring Zimbabwe has handed rival Jacob Zuma another opening to improve his image, say media reports. Mbeki’s steadfast refusal to change his stance has brought a flood of criticism and given Zuma a golden chance to strengthen his image abroad, where his corruption trial next August has raised concerns about the future direction of South Africa.

If Zuma can survive the case, he is frontrunner to succeed Mbeki in 2009, having already ousted him last December as leader of the ruling African National Congress. In his toughest statement yet on Zimbabwe, Zuma expressed apprehension at the post-election deadlock and its impact on the neighbouring region, and criticised the delay in issuing results. His decisive response to the Zimbabwe issue is also backed by the ANC and his trade union allies.

In the meantime, Mbeki has told a news conference at the United Nations that "things… have gone wrong in Zimbabwe. According to a transcript published by South Africa's foreign ministry, Mbeki vigorously denied telling journalists that "there is no crisis in Zimbabwe." He said his remark about there being no crisis applied specifically to the issue of election results as matters stood then. "The question [asked by a reporter in Harare] was about the elections – it was not about the socio-economic conditions in Zimbabwe or anything like that," Mbeki said in New York. He added: "I know, as much as you do, when something is wrong…. I think it would be good if people just credited us with a little bit of intelligence… We are perfectly capable of recognising when something is wrong…"

Mbeki also denied that he was loyal to President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu PF party because they were comrades in the struggle for liberation in southern Africa. "This argument that there is some loyalty in the region because we have all emerged from liberation struggles like the Zimbabweans implies that when something goes wrong in South Africa, Namibia or Zimbabwe we will not be able to see it because of this comradeship," he said. "I do not know where this comes from… The very fact that we have this mediation process on the political challenges begins from the premise that there is much that is wrong in Zimbabwe… Why would we mediate something that is right?"

Mbeki also rejected the use of the term "quiet diplomacy" to describe his mediation in Zimbabwe on behalf of southern African heads of state: "What is loud diplomacy? That is not diplomacy." He also revealed that his mediation team was responding to decisions of the heads of state by approaching the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to ensure that all parties took part in verifying election results to ensure they "don't get cooked up by somebody."

While Mbeki was in New York, the South African Cabinet held its weekly meeting. It said in a statement on Thursday that "like the rest of the world, [South Africa] is concerned about the delay in the release of results and the anxiety that this is generating… The government will do all it can to interact impartially with all the relevant players in Zimbabwe to ensure that the election process is concluded speedily and in a manner that enjoys the confidence and reflects the will of the people of Zimbabwe." (Business Day, Johannesburg)

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