South Africa ends "quiet diplomacy" towards Zimbabwe

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Misanet.com / IPS, 5 December - South Africa has signalled an end to its stance of quiet diplomacy toward Zimbabwe and is turning up the heat on its northern neighbour in the face of increasing rights infringements in that country.

In a cartoon at the weekend, the leading cartoonist Zapiro captured the change of approach. President Mbeki stands at a podium to address President Robert Mugabe, surrounded by huge loud-speakers. Mugabe is featured, grimacing, and covering his ears as Mbeki taps the microphone to create a deafening roar. "Obviously," says the cartoon's pay-off line, "quiet diplomacy is not working."

In the past week, Mbeki has spoken out three times against the unfolding political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe, still SA's major trading partner in Africa. On the first occasion, Mbeki stressed the need for free and fair elections in the Zimbabwean presidential elections scheduled for March next year; said that the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) needed to intervene urgently and finally said its neighbours "misguided economic programme" in the past two decades was responsible for the contemporary crisis.

While government spin-doctors will deny the death of the much-criticised "quiet diplomacy" approach, it clearly has waned as a policy option.

When the political temperature in Zimbabwe was first ratcheted up by Mugabe's radical land reform (all but five percent of white farmland has been earmarked for redistribution to war veterans), Mbeki and his Cabinet opted for quiet diplomacy, which entailed a constructive approach aimed at trying to help solve the problems.

It ran counter to the public condemnation and calls for sanction chosen by the former colonial power, the United Kingdom. 

Instead, Mbeki chose to set up a series of committees with counterparts in Harare to consider the economic regeneration of Zimbabwe as well as one to mediate a solution to the land issue, together with the UN Development Programme. Discussions were behind closed doors and SA did not (publically) raise an eyebrow about the Zimbabwean meltdown.

Throughout this time, Mbeki and his Cabinet kept up a stoic defence of Mugabe, despite the impact on the South African economy. This year, the South African Rand has lost 25 percent of its value, while foreign investment's slowed to a trickle.

It's not all because of "Zimbabwean contagion," but business and currency traders do view SA through a regional prism and so, what happens directly across its borders has an impact here.

Explaining the tenets of quiet diplomacy earlier this year, Foreign Minister Nkosazana Zuma said it was an intrinsically African form of foreign relation. "If your neighbour's house is on fire, you don't slap the child who started it. You help them put out the fire. This is the African way," she said, stressing that sanctions would never form part of SA strategy.

For his change of tack from this brand of diplomacy, Mbeki earned an attack from Harare. The state-owned Herald newspaper said in an editorial on Monday that "President Mbeki's alleged utterances neatly dovetail into Britain's gland plan for a global coalition against Zimbabwe." He had become part of a "plot to overthrow the ruling Zanu (PF) government from power ... such betrayal is difficult to stomach."

While Mbeki's published views mark the final turnaround, government insiders say Pretoria's change of heart has been coming for some months now. Trade Minister Alec Erwin signalled this first, when two months ago, he said; "In a short period in Zimbabwe, the industrial capacity has been destroyed. What is happening to ordinary people and workers is absolutely devastating."

Other commentators close to Cabinet said there was a growing realisation that no amount of economic strategising would help, unless there was political will to implement the plans. This had ceased to exist in Zimbabwe.

Part of Mbeki's change of heart is explained by his growing realisation that political stability is vital for the success of the New African Partnership for Development (NEPAD) - the African Marshall Plan he has co-authored with other leaders and which he hopes will help toward continental regeneration.

- You count yourself in or out of NEPAD by your own self-conduct, says a senior government source.

By Farah Khan, IPS


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