[Marxism] Moeletsi Mbeki: Mugabe and my brother united in fear of trade unions

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jun 27 09:03:23 MDT 2008

NY Times, June 27, 2008
Complex Ties Lead Ally Not to Condemn Mugabe

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 
chroniclers say.

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 
Democratic Change.

“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 
unions’ backing.

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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