Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

Why Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy is the best gift to Zimbabwe and African democracy

To understand the effectiveness of President Thabo Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy, we need to understand that, sometimes, finding African solutions to African problems is a phenomenon that cannot be put into words.

In fact, most people cannot grasp or conceptualise it.

Here is a made-up attempt to explain what has been happening over the past few years, which culminated in the recent democratic elections in Zimbabwe.

President Mbeki has given an ear to both leaders.

It all began with Robert Mugabe, who came to present his African solution to Mbeki.

“The liberation movement has fought very hard to attain independence and self-determination for African people. We cannot give our beautiful and fertile land white imperialist control and ownership, again.”

Mugabe was convinced that he was right. He did not expect Mbeki to disagree with him. After all, what right-thinking African statesman would want to see African land and the wealth buried in its bosom given to white imperialists?

Of course, Mugabe was right.

But President Mbeki had looked at him. And he was quiet.

When Mugabe left the meeting, he was a delighted man. Is it not true that silence gives consent? He immediately told his confidantes that Mbeki had agreed with him.

A few days later, Morgan Tsvangirai heard about this meeting. He immediately sought an audience with Mbeki to confront him. How could this be? Mugabe is a brutal African dictator who had overstayed his welcome. It should not have been difficult for Mbeki to tell him so.

“Mugabe is giving the continent a bad name. He is obsessed with power and has dragged the country into economic ruin. I cannot believe that you agree with him. You know that I am the best man to lead Zimbabwe. I am the winds of change that the people have been waiting for.”

Tsvangirai was convinced that he was right. He did not expect Mbeki to disagree with him.

After all, what right-thinking African statesman would support a leader who wants to see African land and the wealth buried in her bosom given to white imperialists?

Of course, Tsvangirai was always right.

President Mbeki looked at him. And he was quiet.

When Tsvangirai left the meeting, he was a delighted man. Is it not true that silence gives consent? He immediately told his confidantes that Mbeki had agreed with him.

Unfortunately, some of Mbeki’s political colleagues heard about both of these encounters. After the meeting with Tsvangirai, they could not contain themselves.

“Wait a minute,” they said to Mbeki. “You told Mugabe that he was right when he said African land and the wealth in its bosom must remain in African hands and it should not be given to white imperialists. And you told Tsvangirai the same thing. Well, which of the two is correct? They cannot both be correct.”

Again, Mbeki looked at them. And he was quiet.

What are we to make of this “quiet diplomacy?” Is it just silly imagination? Is Mbeki too intelligent or stupid?

(If you think that Mbeki does not say anything but just keeps quiet in a meeting, you are mistaken.)

Most people have failed to grasp quiet diplomacy is because everybody expects to hear what they want to from President Mbeki. And as long as people want him to do as they expect, he cannot say anything.

Quite diplomacy is beyond the conceptual grasp of these people.

Though democratic elections have taken place in Zimbabwe, now, very few people have directly spoken about or described anything that Mbeki has said or done, except to admit to closed-door sessions with both Mugabe and Tsvangirai.

It has been much easier to grasp at media speculations and stories than just to see what Mbeki has said and done.

In fact, people have boxed Mbeki up in their minds. They have insisted that he must do this or that to live up to their own expectations to solve the problems of Zimbabwe. Or else they, just like the media, have decided that he has not done anything.

Those who feel magnanimous have said quiet diplomacy has not worked and blame it for everything that has gone wrong in Zimbabwe, including the lack of election results.

Well, people need to stop looking for a particular thing that Mbeki said or did not say to any of the leaders of Zimbabwe. There is no particular thing that he has said or particular answer that he has given that is different from what has taken place in his own country.

Many people have failed to see the effectiveness of quiet diplomacy because they have wanted to separate what is happening in Zimbabwe from what happens in any other democracy, including the Russia, Kenya, United States and South Africa, if you like.

You will simply not find any one Great Leader who can solve the whole world’s problems.

Democracy is an experience that expresses the collective will of the people of a country. It is not something that can be prescribed by one Great Leader.

The ultimate failing to appreciate quiet diplomacy is to believe that Mbeki, alone, holds African solutions in his hands.

When you expect one Great Leader of Mbeki’s stature to act, alone, you are making it impossible for African people themselves to take responsibility for their own future.

Ultimately, what Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy teaches us is that we must abandon the notion that any one Great Leader is going to solve Africa’s problems. That would not be democracy, but autocracy.

We have to stop looking at any one man like Mbeki to save Africa on his own. True democracy is keeping quiet to allow Africans take their own present and future into their own hands.

What happens or fails to happen on the African continent will always be a direct result of what African people themselves choose to do and not what one Great Leader decides.

Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy is the best gift to the people of Zimbabwe to find solutions to their own African problems!

  • Stan

    Sandile the events of this weekend further unravel the threads that hold your argument together. If this is what ‘quiet diplomacy’ results in then no matter how superb Mbeki is at it, it is worthless. No kind of diplomacy, whether quiet or loud works with a dictator.

    South Africans can feel heartily ashamed that we have an impotent leader. A leader who has been too timid to face the truth about AIDS, too timid to sack the world’s worst health minister, too timid to sack a compromised police commissioner, too timid to stop supporting the Mugabe regime. We have an emasculated President, and we have fallen so far since Madiba.

    We are a sorry lot. It’s not going to get any better either. Our incoming President promises more chaos. However sorry we are, we are not as sorry as the Zimbabweans.

  • Eagle

    @ stan

    “However sorry we are, we are not as sorry as the Zimbabweans.”


    Amazing how we are following their Land Grab model, virtually step by step.

  • Peter

    What steps could Mbeki have taken? Why talk about war and invasion etc. Ask you self how many regimes have been changed through bankruptcy? South Africa, Namibia, and Rhodesia all changed governments due to bankruptcy of the existing governments. So left for get about the lack of talk from MBeki and concentrate on the actions of MBeki. Did he do anything to stop the flow of money into Zimbabwe? NO. He extended lines of credit. He allowed 3 million Zimbabweans into SA and they in turn send millions to Zim which certainly prevented an earlier collapse.

    Do we want civil war in Zim? Most certainly not but if you do not have money you cannot buy guns and bullets so what were the chances of this happening if the money supply had dried up? A non violent regime change through the will of the people.

    By providing aid to a dictator Mbeki propped up the regime fo Mugabe.

    By keeping quiet he lead the people of Zim to believe they were powerless and alone. One act of sanctions, say cutting of fuel and power, would have been enough to crumble the Mugabe regime in 2000. MBeki supports Mugabe and to me that is the most frightening view of our own snake in the grass.

  • DollarBrand

    Memela seems to come up with the most ridiculous arguments sometimes.

  • Eagle

    @ Peter

    Brilliant posting.

  • Freedom

    Very interesting debate. I myself am a 20year Zimbabwean female and at the moment, the current events have left me feeling devastated. My stance is much like what Peter said. Noone expects another leader to invade Zimbabwe or single- handedly push off President Mugabe off his throne but not saying anything is indeed supporting it. The reason why people expect so much from Mr Mbeki is because South Africa’s lack of cooperation with Zimbabwe is most likely to affect Zimbabwe to the greatest extent. Mugabe does not care for what Botswana says, or what Zambia says, but South Africa (like Peter said) merely imposing sanctions would be effective and a good enough reason for Mugabe to think twice; Mugabe cant import everything from the East forever. According to my knowledge, South Africa achieved democracy not only from the efforts of Nelson Mandela, but also due to the Apartheid government realising that they could not live in isolation from the world. And unless someone can enlighten me, how is inviting the Chinease in for business any different from having the British businessmen interested in a democratic Zimbabwe; they all have the same interests like everyone else. It is at this point when one can identify a good African leader, one who can have the presence of people of all races and nationalities doing business or trading with them but ensuring that they do not give away too much. Is that not what happened with Lobengula when he was tricked by the British? Yes the rules are still the same except Mr Mugabe is a very intelligent man with several degrees. I somehow feel that he has an advantage over someone like our beloved King Lobengula.
    I believe too, that Mr Mbeki is not a dull man, but one can not blame me for calling him a coward. I feel that he has more power than he can ever comprehend. The people of Zimbabwe are often called stupid for allowing Mr Mugabe to stay for so long but one can see from the past week, even democratic ways will not work. I am not supporting bloody methods either but still that would not be possible. Getting a gun in Zimbabwe is not as easy as it is in South Africa. The riot police are always ready to crush any possible uprisings.Even the courts which are meant to be a peaceful and democratic tool of ensuring justice is tipped over to the government’s side. And for the rest of the people, they have no way to express themselves as most state papers are filled with propaganda. Now any human being who sees that people’s voices have been silenced to such an extent and has the power to make but a small change should have the strength to merely express his opinion. I feel Mr Mbeki knows whats going on is wrong but for the sake of ‘supporting a fellow African leader’, he will simply say nothing. But if only he knew that his decision has accelerated events in Zimbabwe and again i repeat Mbeki will not stop whats going on but he could influence it slightly.
    As for the person who claimed that South Africa has helped Zimbabwe through the revisiting the electoral laws and making vote rigging much harder, that does not mean that it didnt happen, it may have been harder but it still happened! Why is it so hard then to release result? Also the pre-election period itself was unfair with the only state run television station airing pro-government propaganda and you saw yourself, the helicopter pilot who was arrested and happened to be carrying an opposition leader.
    Secondly, the state run tv station probably did not air much on Polokwane. The average person living in the rurals does not care about political issues in other countries because there are bigger things to worry about, eg, sending your children to school or how to support a sick and dying relative when you can hardly support your own family.
    lastly, one can never say that refugees are happy in South Africa. Perhaps you talk about the ‘refugees’ that have managed to get a job in a high paying company. But im talking about the refugees that are sleeping outside the home affaires offices for up to 2months without food and shelter and can I note, a lot of these are individuals with PHDS and who were once shop managers. Now they have been degraded to cleaning toilets or washing people’s laundry. I respect this country for many reasons but this is not home for Zimbabweans, and many would love to go back,but hope is fading away.
    Quiet diplomacy could have been good only for the beginning but now it has allowed Mugabe to get warm and carry on with his plans. The further it goes, the harder it will be for Mbeki to stand up, perhaps its too late. But Mr Mbeki of all people must know what democracy entails. South Africa suffered one of the worst kinds of repression possible. Merely advising Mugabe to perhaps limit the censorship for example could have led to more of the rural people about the real policies of the opposition instead of being constantly told that the opposition winning will mean working as housemaids for white people again. The people of Zimbabwe can not do anything for themselves because all possible methods are not possible in Zimbabwe. It would be helpful if someone with the same authority that Mugabe holds, one with influence could HELP RECREATE those conditions necassary for the Zimbabweans to help themselves. Noone is expecting miracles but everyone is expecting something!It is sad to think that we commemorated the Rwandan genocide less than a week ago. We remembered the lives lost and the fact that the world stood by to watch it happen BUT here we go again! As the great Steve Biko said “It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die’
    Mr Mbeki needs to realise that expressing his opinions which i feel are against Mr Mugabe, he lives for the idea of democracy which I think should cross over all boundaries, all cultures and all colours irrespective of the country you are head of. In the end, we are all connected.

  • amused reader

    Thank you Freedom.

  • Stan

    Freedom. if only you could be offered a job as a blogger for ThoughtLeader! Thanks for your insights.

    Democracy received another setback with the judge’s decision yesterday. Between Mbeki, SADC and the judge, Zimbabweans can put yet another election behind them. Zimbabweans may as well give up hope now, and not be disappointed any further.

    Mugabe will not give up power because he thinks he owns Zimbabwe. Mbeki will not stop supporting him. Most of the SADC are just as bad as Mbeki. I guess we will all have to wait until he dies, and perhaps dealing with his cronies may be easier.

    As for South Africans, we are counting down the days to when Mbeki steps down and takes some high paying job in the United Nations, sprouting about things he was never prepared to do himself.

    A discredited President usually looks for some kind of legacy cause that can define their Presidency late into their last term of office. No such intention for Mbeki.

    His final act will go down in history as having helped subvert the democratic will of the people of Zimbabwe and helped keep a despot in power.

  • Eagle

    @ Freedom

    You say:
    “It is sad to think that we commemorated the Rwandan genocide less than a week ago. We remembered the lives lost and the fact that the world stood by to watch it happen BUT here we go again!”

    Unfortunately it is likely to happen again in Zim and in South Africa if you watch our president walking hand in hand with yours.

    The styles are very much the same, Mugabe’s whole campaign is based on blaming whites for all ills and failings in government and so are Mbeki’s and the ANC.

    History has proven that, with the exception of a few highly intellectual people like yourself, neither Africa nor South Africa is ready for Western Democracy.

    This is not new in history. Historically there were countries that had to be governed by what constituted a managed solution, prior to democracy and that is what is required in Africa.

    Underneath is a brilliant article on this subject posted by a Kenyan Mukui Waruiru.

    Good luck and strength, Freedom. Thank you for an insightful article. My wife and I would like to take you for a coffee next time you are in SA.

  • Rory Short

    What Robert Mugabe has been presiding over in Zimbabwe is the rape of his country and its people by him and his cronies. Such behaviour is despicable and he should have been told so in no uncertain terms by Mbeki and publically too. Quiet diplomacy does not do that. Such statements would not have been taking their power out of the hands of the people of Zimbabwe they would have been giving them some support in their struggle.

  • pete ess

    All the Mbeki-haters: Are you Bush-lovers? Should he have followed the Bush approach of imposing his will (actually the will of the shrill, not his own) on Zim? Now there’s a clever way of doing business: Bush-style! We could have forced ourselves on Zim and . . . what? Given farms to people WE liked? Until ordinary Zims (including those with guns) stand up to Mugabe, they will suffer.
    Mbeki is doing what Bush SHOULD have done in Iraq.

  • Eagle

    @ pete ess

    Or is it pess, pronounced in the African way? Everyone is well versed with the technique of labeling someone thereby immediacy debunking everything that was said by that person and immediately lumping that person with the rhetoric of the label.

    Like your word, “Mbeki haters”. Gone is the aspect of holding a politician responsible for the duties of his office and immediately everyone that tried to do that on this thread is tainted with the brush of ethnic hatred. Misinformation is an old communist tool.

    All your questions i.e. what Mbeki should have done, have already been answered on this blog.

    I have one question for you. In the days when Rhodesia was governed by white people did you also advocate a policy of no interference?

  • Nicola

    South Africa is not Zimbabwe’s only neighbour. We are not their only trading partner. It is not our sole responsibility to treat Zimbabwe like a little child and tell it what to do.

    What action has the rest of the world taken that has helped the people of Zimbabwe? If any action has been taken, it certainly hasn’t helped, because the situation has only gotten worse.

    Mbeki is more or less the only Statesman who still has the ability to create dialogue with Mugabe, so now the world expects him to save Zimababwe single handedly. Why is he the only one that Mugabe will actually meet with? That’s where this article comes in.

    Let’s not be so stupid as to burn the last bridge we have with old Bob by forcing Mbeki to openly condemn Mugabe like everyone else.

    Let’s not forget that if it weren’t for Mbeki, the results would not have been posted outside the polling stations, and Mugabe would have announced his victory weeks ago.

    This is not the first time Mbeki has gone against the will of those below him and kept talks with the enemy going when everybody else wanted a hard line approach. It worked to end Apartheid didn’t it?

  • Eagle

    @ Nicola

    So I suppose that the thousands of deaths, the torture and the displacement of thousands of people in Zimbabwe means nothing to you?

    People are relying on Mbeki because, before his true nature showed, he and the ANC held themselves up as the champions for human rights. Off course once they achieved their objective i.e., to be in power in South Africa, all that fell by the wayside.

    Although I think Mbeki must now walk his talk, I agree with you on the issue of responsibility of the rest of the world. It was the Brits, primarily, who put Mugabe into power. Where are they now? The Canadians howled at the moon about democracy under the previous government in SA, in the name of “human rights”, where are they now. The Americans interfered to overturn the previous government in SA, where are they now?

  • Burnsie

    I think it’s called entropy – anything left alone will decay, it will never improve. Human will and action are required to bring order. Articles like this depress me – I am starting to believe that African “leaders” are incapable of bring order to the chaos that is the poverty and violence of Africa.

  • Belle

    @Update for Sandile and Silwane

    News reports that Judges Khampepe and Moseneke, sent to Zimbabwe by Mbeki in 2002 to observe the 2002 election, filed devastating reports on how fraudulent the election was. And Mbeki ignored them.

    We now have proof that Thabo Mbeki allowed Robert Mugabe to get away with a stolen election 6 years ago … and so all your stories crumble to dust …

    Comments please, gentlemen.

    Mr Mbeki is now eligible to be charged for complicity in crimes against humanity resulting in devastation to millions of lives:

    -5 million Zimbabwean refugees
    -2000000% inflation
    -widespread collapse of basic infrastructure
    -collapse of economy
    -collapse of sustainable human life
    -media silence and imposition of a police state
    -half of all children born since 2000 are stunted from malnutrition
    -25% of children born since 2000 suffer kwashiokor
    -Life expectancy dropped 10 years in 10 years to record lows on the planet. Women, the incubators of future generations, have the lowest lifespans.

    -In 2000 the population numbered 14 million. Today the total number of resident (and surviving) Zimbabweans is probably somewhere between 5 million and 8 million.

    If thats not genocide, what is your definition, gentlemen?

    .. please note, Ive not even mentioned the thousands tortured, murdered, and made homeless following the latest stolen election.

    And the children … at least half the population left behind in Zimbabwe are children. (or the old and sick, who are left looking after the children) Do we, in Africa, EVER THINK OF WHAT WE DO TO OUR CHILDREN?

    Does Thabo?

    Mbeki, along with Mugabe, is probably eligible to face charges of Crimes against Humanity in The Hague. Unlike Mugabe, Mbeki will not be guaranteed a safe retirement.

  • Eagle

    @ Belle

    Brilliant post.

  • Ljubomir Mamula

    Watch Rosemary’s Quest. (Reduce the volume).

    Regards, LM

    PS. Watch, read and click sometimes before midnight on the regional television and newspapers too, e.g.,,,,, and the others. Be the first to know.

    Regards, LM

    PS. Read the advertisement in “Politika/The New York Times” from 15/04/2009, p.09: Otvaranje foruma za gradjansko pravo jugoistocne Evrope, Dr Thomas Meyer, Po nalogu Saveznog Ministarstva Za Privrednu Saradnju.

    PPS. Watch History Channel about Germans in Scandinavia, Kirkenes, 1940 and NG program about Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

    PPPS. Any job for me in Zimbabwe?