Filed Under: Politics | Posted: 04/11/2007 at 4:26AM
Comments | Region: South Africa
A recent interview in the Financial Times had South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki reiterating his much maligned policy of quiet diplomacy on the ever thornier subject of his country’s troubled neighbour, Zimbabwe. With Robert Mugabe, who at 83 has now led Zimbabwe for 27 years, having convinced his party to select him as their candidate for the upcoming elections and thousands of illegal immigrants pouring into South Africa every week, Mbeki is under huge pressure to change his tune.
Sensible as it may appear to be, Mbeki’s stance is costing him popularity at home – popularity he can ill afford to lose with controversial ANC deputy Jacob Zuma the probable benefactor of changed minds within the local voting public. Zuma has become popular with an increasingly disgruntled rural population, for whom housing is as much a problem as it was when Nelson Mandela ushered in the post-apartheid regime in 1994. After hours, Zuma’s contribution has been rather less useful. Over the past two years, Zuma has been accused of both rape and corruption. He dodged the former charge after the state, frustrated by the state’s bumbling argument and lack of evidence, and threw the case out of court. He awaits trial for the latter charge and, if evidence rumoured to have been found is presented in court, he may not be quite as lucky.
Should Zuma escape prosecution, however, he would remain Mbeki’s strongest opponent for the 2009 general elections. The belief that this could spell disaster for South Africa is vastly supported. Mbeki has not yet ruled out the possibility of retaining the leadership of the ANC in order to protect his legacy, or, should Zuma claim the presidency, in order to thwart his rival. Mbeki may well attempt to retain control of the ANC simply to make sure he is succeeded as president by a candidate he selects himself. He can ill afford to lose support over the coming months. Zimbabwe, his bane over the past few years, is beginning to cost him just that.
The attacks on Mbeki’s treatment of the Zimbabwe crisis are not new; he received his most furious grilling last year when he approved a motion to pay off half of Zimbabwe’s $1.6 billion debt to the World Bank. Mbeki claimed to have been indirectly serving the interests of his own economy, explaining that Zimbabwe’s expulsion from the World Bank would detract from investor confidence in South Africa. The local public spat disapproval, arguing that Mbeki’s had not only wasted taxpayers’ money but had used it to endorse a fascist and immoral regime.
Mbeki has never been known as a people’s president. Indeed, he admits as much himself, saying on more than one occasion that it is not the job of a country’s leader to be liked by its people. But it is the people who will decide whether or not his legacy is to be protected and the people who could vote in the man who is likely to undo a great deal of the work he has done. That Zuma as president will be bad for the country is a contention not without its detractors. But few would argue that such a move would not be extremely risky given Mr Zuma’s soiled reputation abroad.
In his eight years in office, Thabo Mbeki has established South Africa as the economic success story of Africa, darlings to foreign investors and the exception to the African rule that a country flounders after it has gained independence. Zimbabwe, while respected around Africa for its intolerance to any remnant of colonial imposition, is Mbeki’s most threatening curveball. If his soft approach does not yield hard results soon, he could find himself losing a good deal of the respect he has so painstakingly gathered overseas.