Page last updated at 20:01 GMT, Monday, 7 April 2008 21:01 UK

Mbeki's 'quiet diplomacy' doubted

By Allan Little
BBC News, Johannesburg

South African President Thabo Mbeki in the UK, 5 April, 2008
The South African president had been leading mediation efforts

To get a sense of why Zimbabwe's crisis matters to its southern African neighbours - and to South Africa in particular - go to the Central Methodist Church in central Johannesburg.

It has become a refuge for 2,000 refugees who have fled Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. They sleep in overcrowded corridors and meeting rooms. For the sick, there is a clinic.

"It is better than staying in Zimbabwe," one young mother told the BBC last week.

"At least here I can get something to eat. I can work as a cleaner and buy food for my children.

"In Zimbabwe there is nothing."

There are - at the very least - hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans in South Africa, most of them here illegally.

Some estimates put the figure at three million. If that is true, then about a quarter of the population of Zimbabwe has left the country.

Beaten to death

Zimbabwe's downward economic tumble exerts a drag on the entire region.

It causes instability. It scares potential foreign investors in neighbouring countries.

In short, it is a headache for South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki. And he has adopted what he calls a policy of "quiet diplomacy" to try to resolve the crisis.

Parliamentary results
Presidential results:
None so far
Winner needs more than 50% to avoid run-off
Senate results:
Zanu-PF: 30
MDC: 24
MDC breakaway: 6

In March last year, the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai suffered severe head injuries in police custody.

He was filmed in his hospital bed and the pictures flew around the world to predictable international outrage.

The cameraman who reportedly took the pictures was later abducted and beaten to death.

At a meeting of the South African Development Community, the region's leaders asked Mr Mbeki to lead mediation efforts aimed at brokering talks between President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Mr Mbeki appointed two of his closest and most highly respected lieutenants, Frank Chikane and Sydney Mufamadi, to act as go-betweens.

The MDC, for its part, sent two of its senior leadership insiders - Tendai Biti and Welshman Ncube - to take part in the talks.

Much less is known about the involvement of Zanu-PF and the notoriously proud and impervious Robert Mugabe, because the whole process has been discreet.

New openness

For a time, the quiet approach produced results.

South Africa brokered a new election law which could yet prove decisive.

For the first time, electoral officials have had to post the number of votes cast at individual polling stations, making it much harder to manipulate the figures centrally.

The MDC have been smart in exploiting this new openness - they say they have photographs of every result as it was posted on the day.

This is probably not true, but they have a lot, and Zanu-PF - and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission - do not know which ones they have, making any attempted rigging of the vote centrally a tricky business.

Many analysts say the talks also persuaded Mr Mugabe to keep the elections peaceful - keeping the security forces and the feared "war veterans" on a much tighter leash.

But by December last year the talks had run aground. The MDC later declared them a failure.

British dismay

Mr Mbeki says that his diplomacy is working.

Zimbabweans look at election results taped onto the wall of a polling station in the Harare suburb of Mbare (30 March 2008)
For the first time, results were posted outside each polling station

In London at the weekend, he declared himself satisfied with the election process on the grounds that the first round had passed off relatively peacefully.

To the evident dismay of his British hosts he had nothing to say about the mysterious failure of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to declare a result.

And so the criticism, and the frustration felt by many in the region, mount.

South Africa's Sunday Times at the weekend described Zimbabwe as a "festering sore". And, it went on, the South African government "must not allow Mugabe to subvert democracy again… South Africa's strategy of quiet diplomacy has done little more than to cosset Mugabe while he raped his country".

Mr Mugabe had shown repeatedly that he had no respect for Mr Mbeki, and that he had "made South Africa's president the laughing stock of the diplomatic world", the paper said.

Nonetheless, Mr Mbeki continues to carry the hopes of much of the world.

Commitment to discretion

Mr Tsvangirai may have called on the international community to intervene.

The danger is that there will come a point when Mr Mbeki's public silence will start to look like complicity

But even Mr Mugabe's most entrenched opponents - the British - continue to place their faith in Mr Mbeki, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown in constant touch, apparently urging Mr Mbeki to continue to press for a mediated solution.

Mr Mbeki's commitment to discretion, though, comes at a huge price in public credibility.

And the question is becoming more urgent, because nine days after polling, Zimbabwe's election result is still not announced.

The danger is that there will come a point when Mr Mbeki's public silence - and that of every other leader in the region - will start to look like complicity.


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