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Friday, 5 May, 2000, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
Mbeki's quiet approach
Mbeki and Mugabe
Historical loyalties have dimmed South African criticism
By News Online's Justin Pearce

As the political crisis in Zimbabwe drags on, Western observers have been wondering why South Africa does not apply more pressure on President Robert Mugabe to end the violence.

After all, South Africa is by far the wealthiest and most influential country in the region, providing Zimbabwe with most of its trading opportunities and most of its electrical power.

Our government will work persistently and without making the noise of empty drums, to help the sister people of Zimbabwe

Thabo Mbeki
When regional leaders met in Victoria Falls in April, there were predictions that President Thabo Mbeki and his neighbours would take the opportunity at least to express their concern over the situation in Zimbabwe.

Instead, Mr Mbeki - with the support of Namibia's President Sam Nujoma and Mozambican President Joachim Chissano - affirmed his support for the land reform process in Zimbabwe, without censuring Mr Mugabe for failing to stop the violence which accompanied the seizure of land.

South African opposition leader Tony Leon has said that Mr Mbeki's "softly, slowly" diplomacy has been largely ineffective and has done nothing to restore peace and democracy to Zimbabwe.


The late Alfred Nzo, who was foreign minister in South Africa's first post-apartheid government, was widely criticised for a lack of any visibly coherent foreign policy.

The "softly, slowly" diplomacy employed by President Mbeki was largely ineffective and had not reached its desired goal which is to restore peace and democracy to Zimbabwe

SA Democratic Party
He was succeeded by Nkosazana Zuma, who as health minister had acquired a reputation for tough talking and decisive action in the face of controversy.

But as foreign minister, even Dr Zuma has steered away from confrontation, hoping rather to position South Africa as a neutral mediator in regional disputes - as witnessed by South Africa's relatively low-profile role in peace efforts for the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Historical links

But in the case of Zimbabwe, historical loyalties and domestic political concerns make the situation a particularly delicate one for the South African government.

Mr Mugabe is the longest-serving leader in the region. In the 1980s, with apartheid South Africa a pariah among its neighbours, Zimbabwe was also the dominant political and economic power.

Squatters on Zimbabwean farm
Blacks were dispossesed of land in both South Africa and in Zimbabwe
Throughout that period Mr Mugabe's government took a stand against apartheid in South Africa, and against the South African occupation of Namibia.

This came at considerable cost to Zimbabwe's own security, as the South African military conducted raids on Zimbabwean territory in pursuit of ANC operatives.

Mr Mugabe also allied himself with the Frelimo government in Mozambique, which at the time was fighting a bitter civil war against the South African-backed Renamo rebels.


So with Namibia independent, South Africa under ANC-led democratic rule, and Mozambique finally at peace, it is no surprise that the current generation of leaders feels it owes Mr Mugabe a debt of gratitude.

Given the continued white domination of the South African economy, Mr Mbeki is particularly vulnerable to criticism from north of the Limpopo that his country is too heavily influenced by Western interests.

Hence the reluctance to be seen to be co-operating with the efforts - led by the UK - to isolate Mr Mugabe.

Emotive issue

Land is an emotive issue in South Africa, which shares Zimbabwe's history of black dispossession by white colonists.

This explains why a recent poll showed a majority of South Africans to support the occupation of land in Zimbabwe - despite South Africa's legal mechanisms for the orderly transfer of land to black farmers.

For that reason alone, it could be politically dangerous for Mr Mbeki to speak out too strongly against a neigbouring president who has set himself up as the champion of black land rights.

Despite all this, Mr Mbeki realises he cannot afford to igore what is happening in Zimbabwe.

Confidence shaken

Events across the border have shaken investor confidence in South Africa, causing the rand to hit a new low against the US dollar.

In a rare address to the nation this week, President Mbeki avoided criticism of either President Robert Mugabe or of the UK.

Pledging to help find a solution in Zimbabwe, his emphasis was on the land issue.

"Together with them, our government will work persistently and without making the noise of empty drums, to help the sister people of Zimbabwe to find a just and lasting solution to the real and pressing land question in their country," he said.

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19 Apr 00 | Business
Zimbabwe's economy under threat
06 Mar 00 | Africa
Points of view: Occupying farms
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