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The death of “quiet diplomacy”

Tuesday 21 October 2008, by Roger Southall

The resignation of Thabo Mbeki as South Africa’s president is linked to the failure of Zimbabwe’s power-sharing agreement. The result is to restore the political initiative to Robert Mugabe’s regime, says Roger Southall

Harold Wilson, Britain’s prime minister when Ian Smith’s Rhodesia proclaimed its independence in 1965, once famously said that "a week is a long time in politics". His descendant as Labour Party leader and prime minister, Gordon Brown, responded to the lightning-speed of events during the current financial crash by jocularly updating the phrase to "an hour....". For his part, South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki might regard a month as the appropriate length of time for the wisdom to take hold - for it has taken just this period for the Zimbabwean power-sharing agreement he mediated to turn from new dawn to cold ashes.

Mbeki’s resignation as South Africa’s president on 21 September 2008 followed a high-court ruling that favoured his great political rival Jacob Zuma (see "Thabo Mbeki’s fall: the ANC and South Africa’s democracy", 13 October 2008). A bleak moment, but amid the retreat from office there was the simultaneous comfort of widespread accolades for what many deemed to be the eventual triumph of his much-criticised "quiet-diplomacy" effort to bring a political settlement in Zimbabwe. The problem is that the two events were in reality connected: for Mbeki’s ejection helped to precipitate the collapse of the deal - between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai - in which he had invested so much of his political capital.

The road from Harare

The quiet-diplomacy strategy - designed to reconcile Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Front-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) - had long been regarded as ineffective, even futile, in face of the intransigence of Mugabe and his regime. But in the end, after many tortuous problems and numerous stand-offs, it seemed to work. In Harare for the signing ceremony on 15 September 2008, the three central figures - Mbeki, Mugabe and Tsvangirai - all shook hands and beamed smiles for the cameras. The two Zimbabweans pledged themselves to an agreement which would move Zimbabwe forward - even though their hostile or indifferent body-language told its own story. It was a brief, and it as it has turned out illusory, moment of hope.

The road from Harare began in Pretoria, with a high-court ruling that South Africa’s presidency had interfered in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA’s) attempted prosecution of African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma on corruption charges. The result - within a fortnight, equally a long time in politics - was a decision of the ANC’s national executive committee that left Mbeki no option but to resign. In so doing, the ANC also collapsed the already shaky foundations of the proposed agreement in Zimbabwe - for although Mbeki retained his role as mediator, he had now lost whatever authority he had as president. Robert Mugabe was laughing.

The threads of a deal turned to shards. It had all looked different when Zanu-PF’s defeat in the parliamentary elections of March 2008 provoked the regime to intensify violence throughout the country - in turn leading Morgan Tsvangirai ultimately to withdraw from the presidential election of June. This left Mugabe unchallenged and able to claim the formal legality of a victorious re-election; but his international credibility was in shreds, with support for him visibly draining even within the Southern African Development Community SADC). There were reports too of Mugabe’s erstwhile ally China becoming impatient with the recalcitrance of its latest client regime, and wanting a settlement which would promise an end to political unpredictability and greater security of its growing involvement in Zimbabwean mining.

Mugabe’s regime was increasingly isolated; the economy was in tatters, withmost of the country’s population starving; the option of sending out signals of willingness to accommodate with the MDC seemed unavoidable. This allowed Thabo Mbeki to think that the moment of "quiet diplomacy’s" triumph had come. But if crisis can be opportunity, opportunity can be danger: and so it proved for Morgan Tsvangirai, for Mugabe’s determination to retain the presidency and his regime’s refusal to stand down meant that the MDC leader faced the choice of either walking away from the situation or seeking some sort of second-best deal.

Tsvangirai’s dilemma

If he walked away, he faced the possibility that Mugabe would cobble together an agreement with Arthur Mutambura (leader of the MDC’s minority faction); this would complicate the political situation while doing nothing to prevent the continuing collapse of the economy. If he made a deal, he could at least try to reverse the trend of events by attracting support from moderate elements within Zanu-PF away from Mugabe.

Tsvangirai’s strength in these circumstances was that only a deal which genuinely shared significant power between the MDC and Zanu-PF could unlock the door to international legitimacy and life-giving international aid and credit; his weakness was that Mugabe still had the brute power of state forces behind army him - whereas the MDC’s supporters were so battered, bruised and hungry they were unwilling to risk further physical confrontation with the president’s thugs, police and army.

Tsvangirai had long been highly distrustful of Mbeki, accusing him - with justification - of having cosseted Mugabe. But over several weeks he allowed himself to be lured into a deal, which on paper looked workable. Robert Mugabe would remain as executive president, with Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister; Zanu-PF would hold fifteen ministries,the MDC thirteen and Mutambura’s MDC faction three (providing a united MDC with a notional majority); Zanu-PF would retain the ministry of defence (thereby avoiding or postponing the MDC’s day of reckoning with the army), but the MDC would fill the home-affairs ministry (responsible for the police) as well as finance; and while Mugabe refused to concede the ultimate right to appoint ministers to the cabinet, Mbeki achieved a compromise whereby a council of ministers would supervise the cabinet.

Even on paper there were dangerous ambiguities - especially over who would wield effective power. It was known that key players within the military hierarchy and Zanu-PF politburo remained opposed to any accommodation with Tsvangirai, so it was far from certain that they would honour the letter (let alone the spirit) of any deal. Furthermore, many argued that the MDC’s control of the finance ministry would be useless unless it could also take control of Zimbabwe’s reserve bank, which controls foreign-exchange allowances and the printing of money. Nonetheless, Tsvangirai - who in any case leans instinctively towards compromise rather than confrontation - acceded under Mbeki’s lobbying to signing a deal in mid-September which seemed to bring the MDC to the edge of power. At the same time he signed before Mugabe’s concession of key ministries was confirmed - so the haggling continued even after Mbeki had returned to Pretoria.

Mbeki’s enforced resignation now changed the game-plan. South Africa’s attention was diverted from Harare to Pretoria, the nation absorbed by the sudden appointment of Kgalema Motlanthe to the presidency. Mugabe’s luck was reinforced when global capitalism went into a tailspin, rendering Zimbabwe even more of a sideshow. Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma insisted that Mbeki would continue to serve as a mediator in Zimbabwe to bring the deal to a close, but his leverage was now undermined.

The hawks in Harare - always concerned that Mugabe might give away too much - chose to take full advantage. They insisted that the process be thrown into reverse, and demanded unilateral actions that would negate both the spirit and the letter of the negotiations. Thus Mugabe announced the appointment of Zanu-PF stalwartys Joyce Mujiru and Joseph Msika as vice-presidents, and threatened to renege on promises previously given that key ministries would be granted to the MDC. Tsvangirai blustered, and threatened to pull out; the unthroned Mbeki returned to Harare to hold things together. But he was now, visibly, yesterday’s man. Mugabe’s continuing prevarication and Tsvangirai’s lack of muscle mean only that negotiations drag on with no immediate end in sight.

A lesson in power

Zimbabwe is bankrupt: inflation (officially 231,000,000% but estimated by many economists as over four time this figure) has tipped the economy towards both pre-monetary bartering and dollarisation; some 3 million of the most able Zimbabweans have left the country, most to South Africa, to find work; around 6 million people of those who remain are living in desperate food insecurity (often on the verge of starvation), and heavily dependent upon remittances of food and finance from their relatives outside the country.

It has been said often that the disastrous collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy will translate into the collapse of Robert Mugabe’s regime. Such predictions have until now always been proved wrong. The military men who stand behind Mugabe remain bitterly resistant to conceding power: worried about being prosecuted for human-rights offences by a successor government; concerned about losing the farms they seized from white farmers; and fearful of losing their access to the foreign currency handed out at favourable rates to Zanu-PF cronies by the central bank. For the moment they are digging in, reckoning that Thabo Mbeki is unlikely to have the unambiguous support of an ANC government now distracted by internal rebellion (as pro-Mbeki rivals threaten to break away to form a new party) and its own mounting financial problems. The more political tensions grow within the ANC, the less will the Motlanthe government want to risk Mbeki staging a belated diplomatic triumph. Quiet diplomacy is dead.

True, common sense and the work of time would seem to dictate that the Mugabe regime’s days are numbered. History, at some point, will indeed sweep him and his cronies away. But Mugabe and his generals are still playing for time, and as long as they can continue to gain access to arms and foreign currency they are likely to continue to lead all other players in what is to them a game of cynical political manipulation.

If the dollars threaten to dry up - a prospect brought closer by the relapse in global-minerals markets) - then in theory the attraction of power-sharing with the MDC should increase. It is possible, then, that the coming weeks might see the installation of Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister as formal head of an MDC-led coalition government. That in turn might open the door to financial stabilisation, aid and relief - although even that is now brought into question by global financial turbulence and donors’ tightening budgets.

Even if events take this new twist, however, there can be no change in Zimbabwe’s regime until the state’s military backing is vanquished. This is the nettle that South African mediation has continuously failed to grasp. The lesson of the power-sharing agreement that failed is that only a power-struggle will unseat Robert Mugabe and his regime.

Roger Southall is honorary research professor in the sociology of work programme, University of the Witwatersrand

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