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S. Africa-Zimbabwe Relations Remain Close but Complex - 2003-12-19

South African President Thabo Mbeki has visited Zimbabwean political leaders in the wake of that country's exit from the Commonwealth and harsh criticism of Mr. Mbeki at home and abroad for his handling of the Zimbabwe crises.

When he came to office in 1999 President Thabo Mbeki adopted an approach of quiet diplomacy - or what his officials now call "constructive engagement" - toward African problems, particularly Zimbabwe.

There are several reasons for this, not least the humiliating rebuffs handed to former President Nelson Mandela when he adopted tough go-it-alone approach to African issues in the past.

When he criticized Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, he was castigated by regional leaders and Mr. Mugabe refused thereafter to speak to him on any issue of substance. When Mr. Mandela urged the international community to impose sanctions against Nigeria in 1995 following the execution of opposition leader Ken SaroWiwa and eight others - the international community ignored his plea.

In addition, President Mbeki has made it clear that South Africa's destiny is, first and foremost, inextricably bound to that of southern Africa.

John Stremlau of the University of the Witwatersrand says President Mbeki has two primary concerns in dealing with Mr. Mugabe - the interests of South Africa and winning the support of the leaders of the Southern Africa Development Community, or SADC.

"Mbeki has had to walk a very difficult line domestically where the land issue is a very sensitive one and he has not allowed Zimbabwe to divide South Africans which is his most vital concern, first of all," he said. "Secondly he doesn't want to be seen by smaller neighbors - and South Africa really is the giant in the sub-region - as throwing his weight around too much; he's been trying to build a consensus within the sub-region to try to isolate and ultimately promote a transition of power in Zimbabwe."

Other analysts and senior South African government sources say that this year, President Mbeki won general support within SADC for an exit strategy for Mr. Mugabe and that part of the strategy entailed the Commonwealth readmitting Zimbabwe at its November summit in Nigeria.

Professor Stremlau says the purpose of that would have been to allow Mr. Mugabe to leave the scene with at least the fa├žade of dignity.

"And clearly [president] Mbeki has been pushing for this quietly and strenuously for many, many months and promised that publicly [to] audiences earlier this year that we would see Mugabe's dignified departure," said Mr. Stremlau. "That has not yet happened and, I think, one of the reasons [president] Mbeki is frustrated is that he thinks that the decibel level raised at the Commonwealth and elsewhere has caused Mugabe to dig in his heels."

Professor Stremlau says that President Mbeki's critics misread his policy on Zimbabwe and that, rather than defending Mr. Mugabe, the South African leader's real concern is defending African prerogatives in dealing with African problems.

And Moeletsi Mbeki, the Deputy Chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs, says it is a myth that the ties between the governments of South African and Zimbabwe are warm.

He says there are numerous reasons for Zimbabweans to resent their southern neighbors - from the invasion of Zimbabwe by a splinter Zulu group in the mid-nineteenth century to the support of the white minority government in Zimbabwe by South Africa's apartheid government. Most recently, says analyst Mbeki, is the rejection in the 1960s by the African National Congress of Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF as a legitimate liberation movement.

"In the 1960s ZANU-PF, which is Mugabe's party, split off from a party led by Joshua Nkomo, which was a close friend of the ANC," said Moeletsi Mbeki. "So the ANC saw ZANU-PF as dissident, factionalist, which the ANC rejected. So throughout the liberation in Zimbabwe war from the 60s to 1980 when Zimbabwe became independent - the ANC never recognized Mugabe's party because we were aligned to Joshua Nkomo's PF-ZAPU party."

Even so, there are many South Africans who think South Africa, given its own history of overcoming an oppressive system, has a moral obligation to loudly denounce abuses elsewhere. Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu said what has happened in Zimbabwe is unacceptable and reprehensible. He added that, if South Africa is seemingly indifferent to human rights violations in a neighboring country, there is no guarantee it will one day tolerate such things at home.

Analyst Mbeki agrees and adds that there is a cost to democracy. "So in that respect I think Tutu is right," he said. "Now - is it a difficult thing to do - I don't think so, I don't think its difficult. President Mandela, for example, in Nigeria took a very strong stand against the Sani Abacha military regime which hanged a number of people in the river states in Nigeria - so I think a stand can be taken. Of course it carries a cost to build a democracy."

Perhaps the South African leader has taken these criticisms to heart. Senior government officials say that when he visited Zimbabwe this week, President Mbeki's unequivocal message to Mr. Mugabe was to get serious about negotiating solutions with his opposition.