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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 March, 2003, 06:53 GMT
South Africa's 'silent' diplomacy
By Carolyn Dempster
BBC, Harare

In the last of a series of articles on Zimbabwe, BBC News Online reports on the Zimbabwean view of relations with South Africa.

Robert Mugabe and Thabo Mbeki
South Africa will "never" condemn Zimbabwe
South Africa's attempts to find a solution to the political and economic crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe with "quiet diplomacy" is stoking the fury of ordinary Zimbabweans who cannot see any benefits of the intervention, and believe that President Thabo Mbeki has sold them out.

"President Mbeki is a collaborator with Robert Mugabe in the crimes perpetrated against the people of this country," explodes Job Sikhala, member of parliament for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change MDC, and a recent victim of torture by state police.

"What 'quietness' are they talking about? When we supported the African National Congress in their fight against apartheid, it wasn't 'quiet diplomacy'. And we are fighting a worse system than the apartheid regime," he says.

'Build bridges'

As the food shortages mount, and the queues grow longer, with the spectre of famine stalking the rural areas, Zimbabweans are getting angrier over what they perceive as South Africa's complicity with the ruling Zanu-PF government.

The South African Government has taken the lead role in trying to legitimise the Mugabe regime
Brian Raftopolous, political analyst

Earlier this week South Africa's Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlaminini Zuma said South Africa would "never" condemn its Zimbabwean counterpart.

"It is not going to happen as long as this government is in power," she told journalists.

Ms Dlamini Zuma said the South African Government's objective with its policy of quiet diplomacy was to create peace and to build bridges.

"We are not there to throw people over the precipice."

'Not black and white'

The visit to Zimbabwe of several high profile South African cabinet ministers, who have endorsed the Zimbabwe Government's chaotic land reform programme, has infuriated Zimbabweans.

Fuel queue in Bulawayo
Some want South Africa to stop fuel supplies to Zimbabwe

They suffer the daily exigencies of food and fuel shortages and a collapsing economy, and see no benefit from the quiet - some say "silent" - diplomacy the South Africans claim to be pursuing.

"The world must know this is not a black and white issue. It is an issue of the blacks in Zimbabwe suffering," says Harare mayor Elias Mudzuri.

"Mbeki is not addressing the Zimbabwean scenario correctly. His people are coming and ignoring us in the opposition, but we constitute almost 45% of parliament. They cannot sustain their colleagues (Zanu-PF) when the government is failing the people at the grassroots."

Western diplomats based in Harare reaffirm that South Africa's President Mbeki is the preferred conduit for any breakthrough in the political impasse, and that South Africa is now the interface between Zimbabwe and the international community.

'Not viable'

But political analyst Brian Raftopolous says a breakthrough could be a long time coming:

"I think the South African Government has taken the lead role in trying to legitimise the Mugabe regime.

"One thing is clear - they don't consider the opposition MDC a viable alternative. And the other is that they believe, for stability, the best thing they could have is a reformed Zanu-PF, especially a new leader who could control the army and therefore provide a way forward."

If he [Mbeki] wants to, he can force Zanu-PF to the negotiating table, the exit package, free and fair elections
Tony Hawkins, economist

Mr Mbeki has always favoured a path of quiet diplomacy for fear of alienating the Zanu-PF government and catapulting Zimbabwe into the kind of accelerated collapse which could have disastrous consequences for South Africa and the entire region.

Mr Raftopolous also believes that the South African Government has a domestic political constituency to appease.

South Africa faces many of the same features as Zimbabwe: rising land hunger, widespread poverty and a ruling party which until relatively recently was a liberation movement.

The process of legitimising Mr Mugabe on the international stage has already begun.

His presence at the Franco-African summit is a significant step towards this, says Mr Raftopolous, and the divisions within the Commonwealth over whether or not to extend Zimbabwe's suspension from the body is another.

Mr Raftopolous believes that relieving the international pressure on Mr Mugabe, coupled with the domestic pressures of imminent economic collapse could create the political space for some meaningful dialogue.

Secret talks

Even though the ruling Zanu-PF party has strengthened its hold through repressive legislation, there are some signs of internal dissent.

The head of the security forces, General Vitalis Zvinavashe, has publicly admitted that Zimbabwe is in crisis.

Children eating
Many Zimbabweans do not know where their next meal will come from

And in spite of his denials to the party, General Zvinavashe was involved, together with the speaker of parliament Emmerson Mnangagwa, in overtures to the MDC to negotiate a political compact providing for an exit package for President Mugabe.

A reliable source close to those involved in the talks says senior Zanu-PF politicians are increasingly aware that there is a need to start planning for a political future after Mr Mugabe, but do not quite know how to achieve that end.

Recent unconfirmed reports in the South African media also claim that President Mbeki has held secret meetings with Zanu-PF moderates, among them the former Finance Minister Simba Makoni, who was ejected from his cabinet post for recommending a devaluation of the Zimbabwe dollar last year.

But the bitter view from Harare is that diplomacy is not producing the kind of results to halt the country's slide into ruin and despair.

"I think there's only really one player in all of this, and that's President Mbeki," says economist Tony Hawkins.

"If he wants to, he can force Zanu-PF to the negotiating table, the exit package, free and fair elections. It's just that he appears not to want to, or lacks the conviction that this is what he should do."


Click here to read Carolyn Dempster's earlier reports from Zimbabwe




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