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Monday, 18 March, 2002, 13:05 GMT
Mbeki faces Zimbabwe test
President Mbeki
Thabo Mbeki faces his toughest test as president
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By Anthony Johnson
South African political analyst

The dilemma over what to do about Zimbabwe has presented South African President Thabo Mbeki with his most daunting foreign policy test to date.

The stakes are high. The course of action that Mr Mbeki settles upon in coming days could be defining for his presidency, and certainly his reputation as a serious player on the world stage.

A wrong choice could be extremely costly for Mr Mbeki and the continent he has taken upon himself to rehabilitate

It could have a far-reaching impact on how politics are in future conducted in the 14-member Southern African Development Community (SADC).

In the past SADC has often closed ranks in solidarity whenever a member of the club finds itself in a tight spot.

It could impact on the viability of the African Union which formally takes effect in July as a successor to the Organisation of African Unity, a body increasingly plagued by problems of political cohesion and credibility.

Even more important, it could derail Mr Mbeki's ambitious plan for Africa's economic revival, the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad), which he has been tirelessly marketing to the international community, and G8 nations in particular.

Few options

More broadly, it could provoke a far-reaching debate on the purpose and future of the Commonwealth.

Unfortunately for Mr Mbeki, he has little room to manoeuvre, partly as a result of events of his own making.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo
Obasanjo is unlikely to back Zimbabwe's suspension

When he, along with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, meet separately with President Robert Mugabe and Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai in Harare on Monday, Mr Mbeki's arm-twisting capacity will be severely limited.

One of the items on the table will be proposals for a power-sharing government, or at least a co-operative arrangement, between President Mugabe's Zanu-PF and the MDC as a way of averting or delaying the onset of Western and possible Commonwealth sanctions

Even if Mr Mbeki and Mr Obasanjo manage to extract an undertaking from President Mugabe ahead of the crucial meeting in London on Tuesday to decide on a Commonwealth response to the election, this would hold little water.

President Mugabe has repeatedly, and with impunity, flouted promises of good behaviour made to Mr Mbeki and other African leaders in recent months.

Why should they be believed this time around?

Given recent history, any attempt by Mr Mbeki to crack the whip would be greeted by the equivalent of a comradely belly laugh.


For its part, the MDC would hardly treat Mr Mbeki as an honest broker in a proposed government of national unity deal.

Weeks before the Zimbabwean presidential poll took place, senior South African Government sources signalled their determination to have the poll designated substantially free, fair and legitimate.

Vote counting in Zimbabwe
South African observers declared the election fair

Subsequently Mr Mbeki, together with senior South African politicians and the leaders of the South African election observer mission have bent over backwards to place the best possible interpretation on the poll regarded by many as fatally flawed.

Whatever reception Mr Mbeki gets in Harare on Monday, there is little doubt that he will try to buy more time in a bid to ward off sanctions and Zimbabwe's possible suspension from the Commonwealth.

The South African economy has already taken a pounding as a result of the Zimbabwean crisis, and Mr Mbeki knows that the imposition of further sanctions will hurt Zimbabwe's neighbours too.

Indeed, South African Government ministers had as far back as last year drawn up a detailed post-election economic recovery plan for Zimbabwe, South Africa's largest trading partner in Africa.

Wider concerns

Mr Mbeki last week took pains to emphasise that the recent Commonwealth meeting in Australia had charged the London meeting with more than framing a response to the Zimbabwean election.

The meeting, which will be attended by Presidents Mbeki and Obasanjo, together with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, will also look at ways the Commonwealth can help Zimbabwe solve its land reform problems and promote economic recovery.

Man selling home-made brushes
Reviving Zimbabwe's economy is a prime concern

But as much as Mr Mbeki and fellow SADC leaders might prefer adopting a business as usual posture, this is no longer an option.

Mr Mbeki's hand has been forced. Hard choices lie ahead.

Will he opt for racially driven solidarity with old African comrades?

Or will he stand behind the New Partnership for African Development plan that makes a self-policing commitment by African leaders to good governance, democracy and human rights the basis for African revival?

A wrong choice could be extremely costly for Mr Mbeki and the continent he has taken upon himself to rehabilitate.

Key stories

The vote



See also:

14 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Straw condemns Mugabe 'tragedy'
13 Mar 02 | Africa
Africa backs Mugabe win
15 Mar 02 | Africa
Zimbabwe enacts media curbs
15 Mar 02 | Africa
Africa goes easy on Mugabe
17 Mar 02 | Africa
Mugabe pledges rapid land reform
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