The monkey on Zuma’s shoulder

The frontrunner for the ANC presidency once backed Mugabe

Earlier this week I argued that the past statements and actions of the presidency sit - to use the words of Howard Barrell - "like a monkey on its shoulder, mocking its attempts to assume any dignity or moral weight" in their campaign to ensure the re-election of President Thabo Mbeki. However, to be fair to Mbeki his challenger Jacob Zuma is not invulnerable to the taunts of this particular animal.

In a lecture on human rights at the University of the Witwatersrand on Monday Zuma, launched a thinly veiled attack on Mbeki's Zimbabwe policy. He told his audience: "It is even more tragic that other world leaders who witness the repression pretend that it is not happening or is exaggerated, especially if it does not threaten their strategic interests at a particular time. When history eventually deals with the dictators, those who stood by and watched the deterioration of nations should also bear the consequences."

This passage was presented by certain South African newspapers, no doubt correctly, as a criticism of "government's policy of ‘quiet diplomacy' towards Zimbabwe". However, one does wonder whether whoever wrote this address was aware of the comments Zuma made on the matter as late as last year.

Regardless of the personal acrimony that exists between Mbeki and Zuma, up until very recently one couldn't slip a piece of paper between them ideologically. This has been particularly evident on the Zimbabwe issue. Following Robert Mugabe's "victory" in the rigged presidential elections in March 2002, then Deputy President Jacob Zuma was sent by Mbeki as his emissary to Harare. On March 15 2002 the Daily Telegraph reported that Zuma "was seen hugging Mr Mugabe as they exchanged clenched-fist salutes with the African liberation slogan: ‘Amandla'."

The article said British officials had admitted that "what mattered to Mr Mugabe was South Africa's position. Mr Zuma's endorsement would have delighted him." Zuma meanwhile endorsed the conduct of the poll, insisting: "We sent observers here, who were observing each and every detail. They have reported ... the elections were legitimate, are valid. They were free and fair and we have got to respect that."

Undoubtedly Zuma was in Harare on Mbeki's instructions. However, in an interview with Der Spiegel late last year Zuma was asked again about this matter. The interviewers put it to him that "Mugabe has grown into a dictator, and his country is isolated internationally and economically in ruins. It has more than 1,000 percent inflation." To which Zuma replied, "The people love him. So how can we condemn him? Many in Africa believe that there is a racist aspect to European and American criticism of Mugabe. Millions of blacks died in Angola, the Republic of Congo and Rwanda. A few whites lost their lives in Zimbabwe, unfortunately, and already the West is bent out of shape."

Still, despite Zuma's past ideological inclinations there are a number of reasons for believing (or perhaps, hoping) that he will pursue a different approach towards Mugabe - if and when he becomes ANC president.

The first is that there seems to be a deep bond between Mugabe and Mbeki, based only partly on their shared animus towards white Southern Africans. If you read the government press you will often find Mugabe passing on Mbeki's confidences to the rest of Zimbabwe. The impression these convey is that the two of them are co-conspirators in the common cause of resisting ‘Western imperialism.'

On Monday The Herald (Harare), citing "reliable sources," said the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, had requested "Mbeki to inform President Mugabe that she ‘shall be attacking Zimbabwe because her constituency' demands that... Ms Merkel was also said to have asked Mr Mbeki to request President Mugabe not to be ‘hard-hitting' in his response to her comments." Hopefully, Zuma will be free of whatever the strange and secret ties are that bind Mbeki and Mugabe. (Bizarrely, the following day the same newspaper reported that Mugabe had "paid tribute to the Portuguese government" for the "tight security they put in place to thwart gays who were reported to have come from all over Europe.")

The second is that Zuma's allies in the SACP and Cosatu have made it clear that they will be pressing for a much tougher approach towards Mugabe. In a recent interview with the Financial Times the Cosatu general-secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, was asked whether he thought it was "time for South Africa to wield more of a stick, to be tougher with Mugabe?" Vavi replied: "We should have given [Mugabe] very, very stern indications some time ago that we must act like democrats, allow people to have views, to demonstrate to exercise their basic freedoms or else we will have to teach you a lesson... I don't think that he got that signal, not at all. That's why he continues to think he can do exactly what he did five years ago."

The third is that Zuma, if elected ANC president, will be coming into office with relatively little moral and political capital. The ANC policy of protecting Mugabe, regardless of his conduct, has been very damaging to Mbeki's reputation (though not nearly as costly as it should have been). If Zuma was to pull the plug on the tyrant next door, he would earn himself major kudos both locally and abroad.