For weeks now, many observers in Africa and elsewhere have been questioning why South Africa's leaders have not done more to curb the excesses of Robert Mugabe as he seeks to retain power in Zimbabwe.
Supporters of the South African government deny it has ignored the months of violence in Zimbabwe, much of it blamed on President Robert Mugabe and his supporters. For the past two years, South African President Thabo Mbeki has characterized his policy toward the Mugabe government as one of quiet diplomacy. Some observers say President Mbeki has attempted to use persuasion and offers of economic and diplomatic assistance to convince President Mugabe to respect the rule of law and his own institutions of democracy in his re-election campaign.
And more recently, says Richard Cornwell of the independent Institute for Security Studies, South African diplomacy has become a little less quiet. Mr. Cornwell says the South African leader and Mozambique's president, Joaquim Chissano, have been trying to find a way for Mr. Mugabe to gracefully exit the political stage.
"This has involved trying to create an exit strategy and to persuade President Mugabe to use it and to actually step down, not to pursue his political ambitions any further," he said. "It appears that this has failed."
The intermediary in this initiative was Nigeria, but Moeletsi Mbeki, a director at the Institute of International Affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand, notes that other African leaders have also suggested Mr. Mugabe should step down. "A lot of African presidents have said to me, you know, that some have raised it with him at Organization of African Unity meetings; others have written to him, asking, suggesting, that he has achieved his life's work, he should retire," he said.
Mr. Mbeki says that the Zimbabwean leader has ignored these proposals and will continue to do so. In his opinion, Mr. Mugabe has become dangerously unpredictable. "Mugabe is like a suicide bomber, let me put it that way," he said. "He is southern Africa's suicide bomber. He has demonstrated that for him to stay in power he will stop at nothing even if he destroys the economy that will benefit him by being in power."
But for Mr. Mbeki, the Zimbabwean leader's idiosyncrasies are not the only problem. He says South Africa is, historically, ill-equipped to use moral influence with its northern neighbor. The reasons go back 150 years.
In the mid-19th century, a splinter Zulu group swept north from South Africa and invaded what is now Matabeleland in Zimbabwe, where they established themselves as the N'debele people. As conquerors they enslaved sections of the indigenous Shona people. Fifty years later, in pursuit of his desire to establish British rule from the Cape to Cairo, Cecil John Rhodes invaded the same territory, subjugated both the Ndebele and the Shona and established southern Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe.
Mr. Mbeki explains that President Mugabe, as well as the senior officials in his party, ZANU-PF, are primarily drawn from the elite of the Shona people, whose history, he says, gives them plenty of reasons to despise and resent both black and white South Africans. As a result says Mr. Mbeki, all that South Africa can now do is use economic leverage with Zimbabwe.
"And you know most of Zimbabwe's trade goes through South Africa, through our ports; they get a lot of electricity from South Africa," he emphasized. "You can start to use those kinds of leverages. They have their children, some of them, studying at universities in South Africa, you know the so-called smart sanctions kind of approach."
But like other African leaders, the South African president has been reluctant to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe, saying that it is ordinary Zimbabweans, many of whom are already starving, who will ultimately pay the price of such actions. If their suffering increases says President Mbeki, it will be Zimbabwe's neighbors and especially South Africa who will pay the price - not least by having to house and feed a flood of refugees.
Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies agrees. He notes that South Africa is bound by the rules of the Southern Africa Development Community which prohibit it from withholding electricity from its northern neighbor. He says, whatever the outcome in Zimbabwe, South Africa already needs to consider seriously the likelihood there will be food shortages in Zimbabwe for several years to come.
"That is going to be a problem that is with us, regardless of who wins the election," Mr. Cornwell went on to say. "And we had better do something about it and take it very seriously indeed. Because the flight of people from Zimbabwe is more likely in my view to be precipitated by the food crisis than by the political crisis."
President Mbeki has been reluctant to have South Africa become the regional policeman. But, privately, government officials say his patience with his recalcitrant northern neighbor is being stretched to the breaking point. Publicly, the South African leader says the only result he seeks in the Zimbabwe election is that its citizens are able to express their will.
But both Mr. Cornwell and analyst Mbeki agree that whatever the outcome in this weekend's poll, South Africa's relations with Zimbabwe are, for the foreseeable future, unlikely to be close. However, they say if opposition leader Morgan Tsvangerai should win the election South Africa will find it easier to establish a cordial, if not friendly, working relationship with Zimbabwe.