Mbeki’s Shadow

Wednesday 19 November 2008, by Nicolas Dieltiens

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Despite the fact that Robert Mugabe and Morgan
Tsvangirai signed an agreement to form a government of
national unity, hapless Zimbabweans have, if anything,
seen their country disintegrate further.

Robert Mugabe has former South African President
Thabo Mbeki to thank for saving him from being
dislodged and thwarting the election victory of Morgan
Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)
last March. According to the negotiated settlement,
Mugabe will stay on as president, albeit with his
powers curtailed, while the two factions of the MDC
accepted a one-minister majority in the cabinet with
Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister. The option of a
democratic transfer of power would have undermined
the elite on whose patronage Mugabe’s rule rests,
but more importantly for Mbeki, this would have
represented a break in his policy of appeasement and
threatened the benefits South Africa (SA) has derived
from Zimbabwe’s problems.

South Africa profits from Zimbabwean troubles

The costs of Zimbabwe’s decline to South Africa’s
economic interests have been remarkably minimal; the
country’s GDP growth has averaged in excess of 3%
alongside Zimbabwe’s freefall. South African platinum
mining companies have invested in Zimbabwe under
the protection of a 1992 arrangement made with the
Zimbabwean government that allows them to hold their
foreign currency earnings offshore. When Zimbabwe’s
Reserve Bank governor threatened to annul this
agreement in 2004, he nearly pulled the plug on the
largest foreign investment in his country. He was called
to order by Mbeki himself according to a SA daily
business newspaper and made a conciliatory visit to
investors in Johannesburg soon after.

While capital can still negotiate a political-commercial
framework for profitable investment, the inflation rate
(231,000,000% as of October 9, 2008) makes jobs
not worth the work, while unemployment is now over
80% of the workforce. Opportunities for Zimbabweans
lie across the country’s borders; an estimated three
million Zimbabweans have migrated to SA since

An Old Friend a New Friend

Mbeki first met Mugabe in 1980, shortly after
Zimbabwe’s independence when the optimism of the
time sealed a strong relationship that would grow
during the ensuing years. Although far from being just
a story of old friends, one interpretation of Mbeki’s soft
approach to Mugabe has been his fear of an opposition
emerging, like the MDC did in Zimbabwe, from the union
federation at home. An alliance between the ruling
African National Congress (ANC) and the largest SA
union federation has prevented an opposition forming to
the left of the ruling party. As it would transpire, however,
the challenge to Mbeki’s rule came from within his own
party. Rather than heading down the same post-colonial
road, the two presidents should be seen as treading
historical paths that diverge on questions of domestic
rule and intersect on matters of international relations.

Mugabe has revived his allegiance to China, who backed
him during the Cold War, in the very different context of
that country’s ascendance as a capitalist power. His Look
East policy has thrown the ZANU PF regime a lifeline
while he has decried an imperialist conspiracy behind
the precipitous decline of Zimbabwe’s economy. South
Africa, though, does not have the same dependence on
China. In fact, Mbeki has cautioned against investments
from the East on the grounds that they may mimic colonial

Mbeki as a new international statesman

Mbeki’s SA has taken controversial positions at the
United Nations, including a vote against the censure of
Zimbabwe, whose lead Russia and China then invoked
to justify their veto of a Security Council resolution on
Zimbabwe. The crisis in Burma, a long-time Chinese ally,
was also left off of the Security Council agenda thanks
to South Africa’s insistence that it did not threaten
international security. And SA, with the support of China,
tried to persuade the UN not to indict the Sudanese
president for war crimes. It remains to be seen whether
the post-Mbeki South Africa will change tacks.

This East-South alliance is welded together as a
deliberate countermeasure to the West. When compared
to the United States and Great Britain, who have been
the chief proponents of sanctions against Zimbabwe,
China’s policy of non-interference in other countries’
internal affairs does not encroach on African sovereignty.
Nor does China carry the ignominy of ‘constructive
engagement’ with the apartheid regime in the 1980s.

Mbeki’s mediation of the Zimbabwean impasse held
off internal and international pressure for a resolution.
Rather than just protecting Mugabe, this approach
secured South Africa’s position as a power broker on the
African continent. Mbeki’s plan for Africa’s development
holds that African states are able to foster democracy
and good governance by peer review. Zimbabwe may be
a failed case in terms of the plan but the power sharing
deal was reached in a way that did not undermine it.

Nicolas Dieltiens is a South-Africa based freelance

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