Why does Mbeki back Mugabe?

James Myburgh
05 May 2008

Do we really know why our president supports the old tyrant next door…

Over the past eight years President Thabo Mbeki has endorsed Zanu-PF's victories in a string of stolen elections, opposed the imposition of any sanctions on the regime in Zimbabwe, acted to shore up Robert Mugabe's support within SADC, and successfully diverted international outrage into various meandering and ultimately futile diplomatic initiatives. The only surprise about his obdurate refusal to do or say anything constructive about the latest crisis is - as Tony Leon noted in Business Day recently - that "we are at all surprised."

Still, the extremes to which Mbeki has - apparently - been willing to go in support of Mugabe still has a residual capacity to shock. On Friday the Mail & Guardian confirmed that Mbeki had both known about and condoned the transhipment across South African territory of the Chinese weapons, intended for the Zimbabwean military, aboard the An Yue Jiang. Indeed, the newspaper reported that according to its sources Mbeki had given a "direct order" to the ministry of defence and national conventional arms control committee that the weapons be waved through.

This revelation seems to contradict Mbeki's statement to journalists in New York on April 16 that "those weapons would have had nothing to do with South Africa. I really don't know what Zimbabwe imports from China or what China imports from Zimbabwe." The fact that cabinet clearly knew about the arms from early on also casts doubt on Aziz Pahad's denial of any knowledge of the shipment. The deputy minister of foreign affairs told journalists on April 17 "We are not able to determine as Foreign Affairs what are the goods that are going from one country to another. We are not aware of any nature of the consignment because we don't have the capacity to go and check on any consignments on any ship coming into South Africa."

Over the past month numerous formerly supportive politicians, commentators, and diplomats have pealed away from Mbeki on the Zimbabwe issue. Indeed, according to the Mail & Guardian, his insistence on letting the weapons through has alienated some of his closest allies in government. "Everyone is asking what has happened to him," it quotes one person as saying. "It is very hard to explain."

If there is now a consensus that Mbeki supports Mugabe - and has done since 2000 - there is a lot less certainty about why this is the case. The destruction of the Zimbabwean polity and economy was never in South Africa's national interest. It has done no good for Mbeki's international reputation. And it wasn't obviously in his political self-interest either - it was one of the contributing factors to his downfall at Polokwane. Between 2000 and 2003 Mbeki argued that effecting a final solution to the "legacy of colonialism" was the overriding priority in Zimbabwe. But the great majority of white farmers were forced off their land years ago - and so that consideration can hardly still apply.

Mark Gevisser, has ascribed Mbeki's approach towards Mugabe to a combination of "filial obligation", "diplomatic strategy," stubbornness, and a belief that Zanu-PF would never concede power anyway. Professor Stephen Chan makes similar claims. He has argued there are five reasons for Mbeki's "extraordinary patience" towards Mugabe: 1.) Mbeki knows that Mugabe is backed up by "his hardline generals" - people who will not just disappear at his say so; 2.) He does not see Tsvangirai as a "viable alternative president". 3.) Mbeki and Mugabe "simply get on intellectually" 4.) Mugabe holds Mbeki in "thrall" as the "grand old man of liberation"; 5.) Mbeki "has blind spots" and is stubborn.

When one measures these putative reasons against the thing they have to explain they do come across as faintly inadequate. Like darts thrown against an elephant they can't but hit the target. Still, they fail to penetrate very deeply. What man would stand back and allow the utter immiseration of a country just because he views its despotic leader as a kind of dad? Or, because he regards the head of the main opposition party as beneath him intellectually?

A more substantive explanation has recently been provided by two observers on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. In an essay on the Zimbabwe crisis in the latest edition of the London Review of Books R.W. Johnson argues that "Mbeki's fundamental position was that, as a fellow national liberation movement (NLM), Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF had to be maintained in power at all costs." This is a view shared by the SACP's Jeremy Cronin. In a speech last week he said he personally believed "that what informs much of President Mbeki's Zimbabwean strategy is the belief that national liberation movements in our region should close ranks. This is informed by a conviction that the crisis in Zimbabwe is being used as an entry point by imperialist powers to reassert hegemony over a former colony and eventually over our whole region."

Still, one wonders whether this explanation can bear the entire weight of that which it seeks to explain. The bulk of the ANC leadership - including Jacob Zuma and Kgalema Motlanthe - once went along with this line of thinking. But they seem to have now realised that, beyond a certain point, it becomes barbarous to persist with this course of action.

Once it became clear that the presidential and parliamentary polls had been lost to Zanu-PF, Mbeki had a great deal to gain from ensuring Mugabe's peaceful exit from power. His decision to back Mugabe from 2000 onwards had had disastrous consequences for the region. But the MDC's win provided him with an out. His spin doctors were already spreading the message that "quiet diplomacy" was on the verge of vindication. But he humiliated them and himself by standing by Mugabe after the old tyrant decided to stay on. His stance has left him isolated both at home and abroad. The only obvious beneficiary has been ANC President Jacob Zuma, who has been made to look positively statesmanlike by comparison.

There are other curiousities about Mbeki's relationship with Mugabe. The cover of a recent issue of the British magazine Private Eye has a picture of Robert Mugabe and Mbeki under the heading "Zimbabwe crisis talks". Mugabe says to Mbeki "I'll resign if I can keep my job." To which a smiling Mbeki replies, "Anything you say boss." Gevisser observed in his article that on Mbeki's recent visit to Harare, "Fondly clasping Mugabe's hand, he averred that there was ‘no crisis' in Zimbabwe. The smirk on the father's face left no doubt about where the power in this relationship lay." In a column a couple of weeks ago Justice Malala derisively described Mbeki as Mugabe's "foreign minister."

All three comments point at the same thing: despite his obvious vulnerability it is Mugabe who holds the whip hand in their relationship. If one did not know otherwise one would almost think - as Malala's ‘foreign minister' jibe suggests - that it is Mugabe, not the South African taxpayer, who pays Mbeki's salary at the end of every month.

So, the honest answer then to the question of why Mbeki has backed Mugabe is that I just don't know. I get the sense that there is something else - some strange and secret bond - that binds Mbeki and Mugabe together. I would almost class this thing as a "known unknown." It is there and if we only knew what it was a great deal of what currently appears inexplicable would suddenly make sense.



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 responses to this article

Friends near and enemies closer
Worry when you seek the approval of fools.Worry when they pat you on the back because they are just looking for a soft spot to stick the knife in.Hey Caesar!!!!!!!!!

by buddhamate on May 05 2008, 07:19
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Mugabe has thick dossiers on Mbeki and other senior ANC / Govt peeps
Remember - a lot of the now bosses of the ANC were based in Zim during the "bad old days". They were looting, stealing, shagging etc. to support the ANC fundraising and their own back pockets. Bob's security staff are sure to have kept records of all of . .more

by John on May 05 2008, 07:26
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why does Mbeki support Mugabe
Because Africa, being so full of the hubris of Potemkin liberation and democracy believes, like a wide-eyed 5 year-old at his first visit to a fun-fare, that that is what real life consists of.
The poor, silly, and essentially stupid man is . .more

by Plutarch on May 05 2008, 07:28
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Shared Interests in Angolan Mines
I heard that Mugabe sent Zimbabwean Peacekeepers into Angola because he has huge financial interests in some mines there. When Zimbabwe ran out of money Mbeki was asked by Mugabe to send SA Peacekeeper troops to Angola to back up Mugabe's promise and in . .more

by Frikkie on May 05 2008, 08:12
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Mugabe thinks he is the King of Zimbabwe
I hate Mugabe, he is a very bad man.

by Jay on May 05 2008, 08:24
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How's this:
(1) Denialism
(2) Vindictiveness: Tsvangeri is allied to Cosatu and the "Polokwane mafia".
(3) Rumours abound in the diamond trade of joint ventures in the Congo, where Bob also intervened - See Frikkie's post above
(4) . .more

by Theseus on May 05 2008, 08:54
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Mugabe is a monster the British created
Most African leaders are aware of what really happened in Zim for Bob to end up the way he is.One of the terms reached to give Zim independence was an imminent land-reform exercise supported by the British gov through financial aid.Tony Blair blatantly . .more

by Dan on May 05 2008, 09:23
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Eish why I support Mugabe is because MDC is just a Western Puppet organisation and Tony Blair is just a gay cowboy like Bush. Eet is all a western plot against us, and them just seeting in the Pink Parliament in Britain and Washington - they can keep . .more

by Thabo Mbeki on May 05 2008, 09:35
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I'm with "Thabo Mbeki" on this one...
Democracy is a vile and foreign concept to Africa/ns. It shall not prosper nor survive in the African marxist/stalinist/feudalist mindset.

Democracy is racist and colonial. The "chief" rules, and shall do so forever.

by Zee on May 05 2008, 10:01
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If you are who i think you are, how are you going to manage without all your luxuries when all reverts to longdrop status. Your priveleged position will not protect you at all. It is hard to imagine you sharing anything with anybody.

The two . .more

by OBSERVER on May 05 2008, 10:23
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let's get this straight
I am the person who is mandated to mediate.
That means I can do whatever I like to whomsoever I please on whichever tarmac of whatever airport I like.
I accuse the western global imperialists of meddling in my mediation with their bothersome and . .more

by Pipe-smoking garden gnome on May 05 2008, 11:58
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A possible link - Bob's mate Johan Bredenkamp,the BAE agent in Southern Africa was also part of SA's arms deal.....just maybe Johan told Bob where Thabo and Joe hid the extra cash? - - or was it Billy Rautenbach who told Bob?

by SMITHY on May 05 2008, 12:02
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Mugabe`s thugs is in the DRK Congo since Laurent Kabila and Mugabe`s henchman thud warlord Army Officers has established a safe route for blood-diamonds smuggeled from the DRC Gongo to the rest of the world or for that matter to a safe passage to . .more

by insider on May 05 2008, 12:12
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Blood Brothers
It is certainy clear that there is special bond/relationship between Mugabe and Mbeki. It is one that dates back. Mugabe protected Mbeki in Zim during the aparthied era. Mbeki feels indebted to him.Mbeki hates traitors and would not want to be branded as . .more

by Yah on May 05 2008, 12:20
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There is nothing sinister at work with Mbeki supporting Mugabe - He has proved in the past that it is just a plain clear cut case of stubborness and stupidity. He proved it when he surfed the web for lunatic fringe AIDS theories. Now he is too stubborn to . .more

by JFK on May 05 2008, 12:23
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why ?
why are you people always picking on me ? You are just a bunch of gay racists - go back to Britain !

by Thabo Mbeki on May 05 2008, 12:25
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As far as I know, Mbeki's wife is related to Mugabe's wife (cousins?) so this would be another reason for Mbeki to go easy on the old dictator.

What I find interesting about Mbeki in the South African context is the sheer amount of lies that . .more

by Bachus on May 05 2008, 12:50
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Simpler explanation
He likes his own people. Whites are not part of that.

by Brompot on May 05 2008, 13:07
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by knysna-resident on May 05 2008, 13:48
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2 exis of evil
l hate Mugabe, and l hate Bush too.You see lf there was economic gain for Bush in Zim he would have occupied Zim a long time ago, like he did in Iraq etc.But that operation is not economically viable, so what does he use, the greatest weapon, he unleashes . .more

by berz on May 05 2008, 14:11
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time to say goodbye
When your President makes a large percentage of his citizens cringe with embarrassment, you know it is time for him to go - it is just slightly worrying that there isn't anyone in the ANC with good leadership qualities waiting in the wings to take over.

by worrying times on May 05 2008, 15:04
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Family Affair
Look into the family relationship between Grace Mugabe and Thabo Mbeki's wife... I'm told they are sisters in law. If so, it could be part of the explanation.

by Marc on May 05 2008, 15:55
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Mbeki and Mugabe
No doubt about it..... quiet diplomacy was a mask put in place to fool the western world. Mbeki has used the South African government and foreign affairs since 2000 to shelter Mugabe ( eg motions of "no debate" on human rights abuses at the UN) to . .more

by Sibenza on May 05 2008, 15:59
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note for Sibenza
I assure you sir, there IS outrage.
All decent people are appalled by the genocidal tactics of people like Mugabe, Taylor, Koni. Most decent people regard mbeki as a cynical fellow-traveller of the Stalinist brigade
Unfortunately, in their . .more

by Plutarch on May 05 2008, 16:13
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we would be barking up the wrong tree at our own peril
There are worse than Mugabe i.e. his generals and maybe its better the devil we know - in the short term. Possibly Bob holds Mbeki because in 2000, as i recall Bob loudly suggested that Zimbabwe is not the only southern african country that needed . .more

by lurker on May 05 2008, 16:14
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Crimes against humanity
If one day, the broader world community asserts that Mugabe has committed crimes against humanity then it goes without saying that little Thabo should be in the dock alongside him.

Have you noticed how the "little" men turn out to be the worst . .more

by Bachus on May 05 2008, 16:14
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Why Does Mbeki Back Mugabe
HINT: Follow the criminal cartel money trails spawned from the various regional liberation struggles, identify the regional Cde Godfather, and then you might identify more clearly the "known unknown". And if you dare to do so, you could well be labelled a . .more

by John V Austin : exChikurubi Detainee Former Head Harare Customs on May 05 2008, 16:22
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We are, we are, we are all thieves...
It's the AFRICAN way: we are in charge and we shall enrich ourselves and, by the way, FACK the POOR and FACK DEMOCRACY while you're at it.

by Zee on May 05 2008, 16:48
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Darth Vader
Why I support Cde Bob
Why I cover up the arms-deal
Why I fired Pikoli
Why I keep Manto
Why I allowed travelgate
Why I revile Nelson
Why Ilove Aziz
Why I don't mind China, Fidel, Sudan, Yasser, ...

I am seduced . .more

by Pipe-smoke doesn't cause HIV on May 05 2008, 17:58
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The other two reasons.
You seem to have missed out at least two reasons for Mbeki's protection of Mugabe, currently going the rounds in Zim.

1. He's got a gay crush for him.

2. He's being bribed in hard currency for his retirement fund when Zuma ges in and . .more

by Alisdair budd on May 05 2008, 17:58
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Does Mbeki actually support Mugabe?
Here's another reading. Mbeki's handling of Mugabe is consistent with his wanting there to be a democratic transfer of power in Zimbabwe, reflecting the will of Zimbabwe's voters. Mugabe is a vain man. He wants to believe he rules as the people's choice. . .more

by Simon Barber on May 05 2008, 18:26
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Arms for Mugabe

Your argument assumes that Mugabe is a properly elected leader that is routinely re-stocking his army. However, we know that he has fraudently stolen the previous elections and with 4 mill refugee zimbos resident in SA unable to vote in . .more

by Bachus on May 05 2008, 18:49
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Oh no
Bob you two timing hunk of love meat- I thought what we had was special

by C. Banana on May 05 2008, 19:00
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Because he's a Mckenzie, thats why

by AFROPESSIMIST on May 05 2008, 21:18
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More dangerous than Mugabe - good riddance when he goes next year. A failed leader. Even the poorest here realise they will go the same way under his leadership as Zimbabwe. And soon he will do the white blame thing again

by PIE IN THE SKY on May 05 2008, 21:42
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why does everybody complain, whinge, moan and carry on?
the whites are evil! COLONisers!! ............mmm something to do with the bowel of africa!! oh sorry........the jewel! Guys.........let the stupid bastards in Zim kill each other. . .more

by super duper on May 05 2008, 21:57
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Mbeki's mining interests
The story has it that Mbeki's family have widespread interests in mineral rights and mining operations in African countries, such as the Congo and Zimbabwe. This could explain why Mbeki protects Mugabe and why Eskom keeps on supplying Zimbabwe electricity . .more

by Brutus on May 05 2008, 22:53
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Why does Mbeki back Mugabe
Dear Editor or Moderator or Censor of this site,

Your unnecessary abbreviation of my earlier comment is noted. If POLITICSWEB is seriously and unbiasedly committed to encouraging freedom of speech and wholesome debate, then you should not . .more

by John V Austin : an exChikurubi Detainee on May 06 2008, 00:16
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Why does Mbeki back Mugabe
Mbeki was once beaten by Mugabe's men in the 90's. If you've noticed how one of his teeth is chipped its coz of them boys. He once lived in Zim and he knows where his bread is buttered!!

by Roby on May 06 2008, 07:46
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to Mr Austin
Your comments carry the simplicity of truth.
Your earlier comment carried enough high explosive to convince me that my theory that a great deal of ATM and bank robbery in SA is politically motivated might be true.
The tragedy of Africa is that . .more

by Plutarch on May 06 2008, 07:48
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Its the fault of the West and the DA. If they would not have criticised Mugabe, Mbeki would have acted against him. But he cannot now as this would be him admitting that Whites are right and blacks are wrong. Mbeki has a deeply felt dislike of . .more . .more

by jass on May 06 2008, 08:00
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Mbeki escom diamonds
Rumours abound that the diamonds found at Marange Mine in Zimbabwe have been exchanged for cheap Eskom electricity - why else would you risk public dissent by shortchanging your own country of electricity and providing it for a country that is failing!?

by gusdug on May 06 2008, 10:05
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he is my black brother , its the African Way .this is what us black African brothers do .

by kevin on May 23 2008, 03:12
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Mbeki's daddy bob
All this speculation about why Mbeki backs Mugabe at all costs cannot be ascribed to loyalty and freedom fighters bonds. Look what they do to Zuma !
I believe that Mugabe has a hold on Mbeki for more sinister reasons. Knowledge of illicit business . .more

by frankie on June 23 2008, 11:59
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When in doubt
Always follow the money. Desperately protecting a Mugabe brokered interest in Mines in Angola, the DRC, and/or ZIM, was always going to result in him taking up a contrary position. You just have to follow his track record on the SA arms deal to see his . .more

by James Christian on June 27 2008, 07:37
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No complex answers to the simple passions of African leaders
Robert Mugabe and Thabo have a desperate desire to show the white man the finger, nothing more complex than the simple passions of African leadership to show their "big white bwana" that they are now "independant".

by Anton on July 07 2008, 13:03
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mugabe /mbeki
we must just pust up and shot up on all this . we hear and read millions of opinions every day to no avail and introducing no chnge what so ever to the insanity of the situation so why bother.
I know dtshe logical reason why but to reveal my . .more

by annonymus on August 17 2008, 17:11
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Only the two knows
Thabo Mbeki and Robert Mugabe they both know why Mbeki supported Mugabe to that extent leading to queit diplomacy. I just suspect that the understanding of freedoms fighters on history, modern politics, comrades around them, their needs, unfulfilled . .more

by Historian on August 31 2011, 09:33
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