[Marxism] Moeletsi Mbeki: Mugabe and my brother united in fear of trade unions
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Fri Jun 27 09:03:23 MDT 2008
NY Times, June 27, 2008
Complex Ties Lead Ally Not to Condemn Mugabe
By CELIA W. DUGGER and BARRY BEARAK
JOHANNESBURG — President Robert Mugabe’s enforcers had already begun to
rampage across Zimbabwe, beating his political opponents, when
television cameras captured a startling image of Mr. Mugabe holding
hands with the smiling South African president, Thabo Mbeki, a professed
champion of African democracy.
It was April 2000. And Mr. Mbeki, leader of the continent’s most
powerful nation, spoke no evil of Mr. Mugabe’s repressive ways.
Eight years later, in April 2008, much the same scene repeated itself.
For two weeks, Zimbabwean election officials had refused to release the
results of an election Mr. Mugabe had lost, and a new wave of violence
was beginning. Again, the despot and the democrat genially clasped hands
as Mr. Mbeki declared that there was no political crisis in Zimbabwe.
The complex relationship between these men, stretching back almost 30
years, is crucial to fathoming why Mr. Mbeki, picked last year by
regional leaders to officially mediate Zimbabwe’s conflict, does not
publicly criticize Mr. Mugabe, nor use South Africa’s unique economic
leverage as the dominant nation in the region to curb his ruthless
methods despite years of rigged elections.
The world’s puzzlement with Mr. Mbeki’s approach — walking softly,
carrying no stick — has turned into deep frustration these past two
months as state-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe has become so sweeping
that the opposition’s candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, who outpolled Mr.
Mugabe in the first round, quit the race five days shy of the
presidential runoff on Friday.
Mr. Mbeki’s policy, typically called “quiet diplomacy,” is built on the
staunch conviction that his special bond with Mr. Mugabe can resolve the
crisis in Zimbabwe through patient negotiations, his colleagues and
Mr. Mbeki’s biographers, his colleagues, even his brother debate why he
has stuck with his approach despite years of bad faith by Mr. Mugabe.
Mr. Mbeki’s consistency is variously attributed to a hubristic
resistance to admitting failure, a worldview deeply suspicious of
Western interference in African affairs, a hard-nosed calculation of
political interests and a realistic assessment of the limits of South
Africa’s power when confronted with an unrelenting autocrat.
For years, South Africa has sought to block international action against
Mr. Mugabe’s government and, as recently as June 19, refused to join an
American effort at the United Nations to condemn the political attacks
in Zimbabwe. Only after the clamor against Mr. Mugabe grew even louder
did South Africa agree on Monday to support the Security Council’s
condemnation of the “campaign of violence” afflicting the nation.
With Zimbabwe’s economy in ruins and millions of its people having fled
to South Africa and other nations, quiet diplomacy is now widely
regarded as a tragic blot on the legacy of the region’s leading
politician, an ambitious, high-minded man who stepped energetically into
Nelson Mandela’s shoes in 1999. It also stands in contrast to the much
more critical stance of many African leaders past and present, including
Mr. Mandela, who this week cited a “tragic failure of leadership” in
Mr. Mbeki and his team are even now scrambling to salvage a negotiated
political settlement, and on Wednesday South Africa’s deputy foreign
minister, Aziz Pahad, told reporters, “We can only say the mediation has
failed if we reach a situation where Zimbabwe totally gets engulfed in a
state of civil war.”
South African officials contend that Mr. Mbeki’s mediation led to a
relatively fair election in the first round of voting in March, with
tallies posted at polling stations, a plurality of votes for Mr.
Tsvangirai and a majority in Parliament for the opposition Movement for
“His approach has produced results,” said Themba Maseko, the spokesman
for the South African government.
But Mark Gevisser, who wrote a biography of Mr. Mbeki, “Thabo Mbeki: The
Dream Deferred” (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2007), offered the prevailing
view of the president’s Zimbabwe policy: “It’s his great diplomatic
failure. And it’s all the more significant because of the incredibly
high bar he set for African democracy.”
Mr. Mbeki, now 66, began his career with a strong sense of a destiny.
The son of Govan Mbeki, an icon of South Africa’s liberation struggle,
he was anointed as a leader early and sent abroad to study at the
University of Sussex, where he earned a master’s degree in economics.
His mentor was Oliver Tambo, the exiled leader of the African National
Congress, and he was trained to use his mind more than his muscles, a
student of global economics rather than armed struggle.
Mr. Mbeki struck up a friendship with Mr. Mugabe in 1980, soon after the
Zimbabwean came to power, Mr. Gevisser said. Over time, he developed a
filial relationship to the elder leader. “Mugabe is the father, but not
a beloved father, a troublesome one, the kind the son wishes would just
listen to him once in a while,” Mr. Gevisser said.
While Mr. Mbeki had no illusions about Mr. Mugabe, Mr. Gevisser and
others say, he felt a kinship with the hero of Zimbabwe’s liberation
struggle against white supremacist rule.
“He believes, ‘Even if the rest of the world thinks I am an appeaser —
that I’m just as bad as Mugabe — I have to keep doing what I’m doing
because I have this special relationship,’ ” the biographer said of Mr.
Mbeki. “He thinks he is the only one who can talk to Mugabe, and the
only way to get Mugabe out is quietly and through his acquiescence.”
Mr. Mbeki’s younger brother, Moeletsi, 62, who worked for nine years in
the 1980s as a journalist in Zimbabwe, says the alliance between the men
springs more from a political than a personal affinity: Mr. Mugabe and
Mr. Mbeki view the trade union movement as a common threat.
Mr. Mugabe’s nemesis, Mr. Tsvangirai, is a former trade union leader.
And Thabo Mbeki, whose fiscally conservative economic policies alienated
the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions, lost the leadership
of the African National Congress last year to Jacob Zuma, who had the
Thabo Mbeki and Mr. Mugabe are highly educated politicians who feel they
were trained to govern, Moeletsi Mbeki contends, arguing that Mr. Mugabe
sees Mr. Tsvangirai, who did not attend college, as “the riffraff.”
“It’s a class thing,” he said. “The same with my brother: master’s from
Moeletsi, a frequent critic of his brother, said he believed South
Africa’s protection of Mr. Mugabe — the blind eye to rigged elections,
the shielding from international censure — would likely end if Mr. Zuma
became president next year, as expected, “not because of Zuma,” but
because the unions “will demand it stop.”
It was the dock workers in South Africa who refused to unload a Chinese
arms shipment intended for Zimbabwe in April, a shipment the South
African government was facilitating.
But some who have long known Mr. Mbeki find the trade union explanation
unconvincing, arguing that his approach to Zimbabwe grows instead from a
belief in African solutions to African problems, and to acting only with
unanimity among the nations of southern Africa.
George Bizos, Nelson Mandela’s lawyer and one of his oldest friends,
visited Mr. Mbeki when Mr. Bizos was defending Mr. Tsvangirai in 2003
and 2004 against treason charges that he said grew out of a frame-up
concocted by Mr. Mugabe. At the time, Mr. Mbeki’s critics contended he
could quickly topple Mr. Mugabe by blocking landlocked Zimbabwe from
gaining access South African ports, or by cutting off its electricity,
among other steps, but the president found these options unappealing.
“He said, ‘I can’t cut the electricity because the grid goes to other
countries,’ ” Mr. Bizos said. “ ‘I can’t shut the frontier gates because
we require passage to countries northeast and northwest of us through
“ ‘Please tell me what to do.’ ”
While Mr. Bizos said quiet diplomacy had failed, he doubted anything
else would have worked. “You can’t put meaningful pressure on a person
who’s an egomaniac, who doesn’t care about his people and only cares
about staying in power,” he said.
Others who have known Mr. Mbeki over the years worry that Mr. Mugabe ran
circles around him and say Mr. Mbeki should have shifted tactics years
ago, been more forthright in condemning egregious human rights abuses
and sought a broader role for the international community.
Mr. Gevisser and others who know Mr. Mbeki, with his ideological
commitment to African self-determination, say that he digs in when under
fire, especially from Western powers like the United States and Britain,
which have been pushing South Africa to act more forcefully.
In April, after Jendayi E. Frazer, the American assistant secretary of
state for Africa, visited the region, Mr. Mbeki sent President Bush a
letter that a senior American official called rambling and aggressively
Ms. Frazer had openly condemned Mr. Mugabe for the delay in releasing
the election results and said the evidence pointed to a Tsvangirai victory.
The American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the
letter was never made public, said Mr. Mbeki strongly objected to
Americans coming to southern Africa to talk about Zimbabwe without
consulting him, the region’s appointed mediator, and attacking an
election that he said had by and large respected the rule of law.
By then, American diplomats in Harare had begun venturing into the
Zimbabwean countryside and collecting evidence of the brutal attacks on
opposition supporters, and, the official said, “It seemed very out of
touch with reality and with what was unfolding on the ground.”
This month, these resentments surfaced when Mr. Mbeki addressed South
Africa’s National Assembly, criticizing those who describe South Africa
as a rogue democracy because “we refuse to serve as their subservient”
stone throwers against Mr. Mugabe.
Mr. Mbeki has told the government and the opposition that the violence
needs to stop, Mr. Maseko said. And the violence has now created a need
for yet more quiet diplomacy.
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