By Peter Greste
BBC News, Johannesburg
It has been reported that China has finally recalled the An Yue Jiang, the ship allegedly loaded with arms for Zimbabwe.
Church groups in South Africa demonstrated against the shipment
Rights groups hailed the move as a major victory, a triumph of public opinion over political cynicism.
It seems civil society is taking the lead, well ahead of national leaders, on the question of Zimbabwe.
The An Yue Jiang is a container ship owned by China’s state-run shipping company COSCO, reported to be carrying millions of rounds of assault rifle, ammunition, mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades.
When the ship anchored off the South African port of Durban, a local news magazine revealed that it was about to off-load the weapons, and public opinion reacted with outrage.
Newspaper editorials condemned the shipment, callers rang radio talk shows complaining that the weapons could be used by the Zimbabwean government against its own people.
The South African government’s response was blunt. "So what?" they said.
Government spokesman Themba Maseko said they could do nothing to stop a perfectly legal and properly documented transaction between two sovereign states.
Then unions and human rights organisations intervened.
Dock-workers refused to handle the cargo, and a judge barred it from transiting through the country.
Demonstrators threatened to block its passage if it ever reached South Africa’s roads.
Now, after being refused entry in ports around the continent, the ship is finally thought to be heading home with its cargo still on board.
In a rare show of force, African public opinion and civil organisations mobilised on a single issue to force action that politicians seemed reluctant to take.
The authorities have been driven by embarrassment by what civil society has done
Southern African Litigation Centre
Peter Alexander, the director for Sociological Studies at the University of Johannesburg, says the ship’s departure was a triumph for civil society.
"I am amazed," he said. "It is very impressive that such a concerted action could have such a concrete result."
Nicole Fritz, of the Southern African Litigation Centre, which took the case to court, agrees: "The South African authorities have been driven by embarrassment in the face of what civil society has done."
The An Yue Jiang affair is probably the clearest example of African civil society leading the agenda on Zimbabwe.
But according to human rights organisations and academics, they are forcing politician’s hands in all sorts of subtle ways.
The region’s leaders, grouped together under the Southern African Development Community (SADC) were criticised by the media for their mild call on the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to release the results of the presidential election "as expeditiously as possible" within the bounds of the law.
Last weekend, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa held a summit of 105 civil society organisations in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
They released a communique condemning not just the Zimbabwean government, but the SADC region for failing to act decisively.
Zambia’s President Levy Mwanawasa then called on all of Africa’s coastal states to prevent the An Yue Jiang from entering their waters.
The An Yue Jiang provoked outrage among rights groups
There is no direct link between the Dar es Salaam conference and President Mwanawasa’s comments, but it seems public opinion has moved faster than the politicians on the issue of Zimbabwe.
According to Elenor Sisulu of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, the Kenyan experience in resolving that country’s post-election violence proved the value of pressure from civil society.
"Kenyan civil society made it very clear to us that you have to be very pro-active in addressing this kind of issue," she said.
The Council of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is also listening.
Its Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi hosted a meeting of civil groups, pledging to organise a series of demonstrations in South Africa’s major cities on 10 May.
Mr Vavi said much of the problem was rooted in the challenge that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) presented to the older political leaders who view themselves as standard-bearers of the liberation movements.
"It’s because of the fear that the MDC is led and supported by trade unions and civil society. They worry that initiative may just go on from one country to the next," he said.
"There’s paranoia and fear that suddenly the liberation movements are going to be coming under lots of pressure from these formations. That’s why there is this unwillingness to openly condemn what is wrong in Zimbabwe."
But whatever their motives, the Southern African leaders may have to take notice of public opinion, or risk being left dangerously out of touch with their own electorates.