Simon Barber
Simon Barber

Understanding the kabuki of Mbeki’s diplomacy

How, exactly, is the UN Security Council going to contribute to the resolution of the crisis in Zimbabwe? What would a special envoy say to Mugabe and his securocrats that would have any more impact than the messages already being sent — in no small part thanks to Thabo Mbeki’s reviled diplomacy — by SADC and the broader continent?

SADC, as far as I can see, is already imposing its own arms embargo and the Chinese are respecting it. So Gordon Brown’s suggestion is redundant. Africans are taking care of it, themselves, thank you, and I would wager, when the dust settles and the truth starts to be told, we will find that Mbeki had a hand in assembling the de facto regional embargo.

As for imposing broader sanctions, what on earth could the Security Council do to the Zimbabwean economy than Mugabe has not already done? And does anyone seriously believe UN blue helmets could help the situation, given the time it would take to assemble and deploy a force, let alone decide on its mandate?

Besides, the time has surely come for Africans to deal with a crisis of this magnitude on their own without UN troops. Zimbabwe’s future must be determined by Zimbabweans, the region and the continent in that order. The US and other ex-colonial powers have little to contribute at this point, beyond the pointless bluster Mugabe laps up as grist for his propaganda mill.

Examine the world from the perspective of Mugabe and his securocrats. It is a very, very bleak place. SADC has refused to recognise Mugabe as head of state. Zanu-PF has lost control of parliament. SADC insisted on observing the recount of the parliamentary vote, preventing cheating and allowing the outcome of the March 29 election to be confirmed — an election won by the MDC because Mbeki and SADC prevailed on Zanu-PF to make the process transparent. Now SADC, Angola included, is stopping weapons shipments to Mugabe’s security forces. The regime is in a box and the box is getting smaller day by day. Mugabe and the securocrats must know that there is no way he can legitimately win a presidential run–off. Hence the intimidation. But the intimidation is self-defeating because it means that if he does win a run-off, nobody will accept the result as legitimate. He will be in the same box he is now.

The way forward is to help Mugabe and the securocrats out of the box the way the ANC helped the Nats out of their box to bring apartheid to a soft, consensual landing. That’s Mbeki’s way. If you think he meant it it when he said there was no crisis and held Mugabe’s hand and was all smiles, you don’t understand the kabuki of Mbeki–style constructive engagement. He wouldn’t have been in Harare that day, let alone holding Mugabe’s hand, had there been no crisis.

  • Gerhart

    MidaFo: In case he did not notice,the so called clowns he so disparagingly refers to above are definitely in the majority in their criticism about Mugabe and Mbeki. MidaFo should carefully read the 45 Blogs, maybe he will eventually realise that he is not singing from the right Hymn sheet. What is this obsession with GWB and what has this got to do with a discussion about a Megalomaniac who has destroyed a whole country? Maybe someone can enlighten me please.

  • Velabahleke

    Positive, my problem with your logic is that the MDC is claiming (I use this word reservedly) it’s offices are being raided by the police (and the ruling party). This will mean according to your logic the MDC is going against the agreed stance of the negotiations and derailing the very negotiations they are set to benefit from, by telling us this.

    This makes me cross-eyed. I’m confused.

    Without wasting too many words I can see why your logic fails. I go back to the logic that there are problems in Zimbabwe. And I think the mediator will in no way be stepping out of bounds by admitting as much. Unfortunately what this does is it questions my own intelligence in failing to have seen the failure that is the president of this country. This man seems more comfortable with devisive politics.

    Other than that I cannot draw any other conclusion in so far as Zim is concerned. But I am worried where this very country is right now, and might be going. I tell you why, because the man I have entrusted with my vote to on two occasions has in too long a time seen fit to be party of the oppresion and suppression of a people of what was once the greatest nation in southern africa, and the most educated and for a while most of us saw as a beacon of hope.

    In my view he could have said, “There seems to be problems on the ground, and I will tend to them”. He would not have failed his buddy and not failed the people. Killed two birds with one stone, in a manner of speaking, assured us he cared in the process, so maybe three birds.

    Maybe somebody needs a write critical comment on the president of our country, because I try everyday to have faith in him.

    How I miss ORT, SB and other leaders that seemed more genuine than the encumbent. I’m afraid JZ seems to be more of a populist.

  • MidaFo

    ‘—he could have said “There seems to be problems on the ground, and I will tend to them”’. Velabahleke

    An excellent comment. At last attention is being paid to the problem. It is not a question of his his buddy being failed, it is us Mbeki is failing, because we are not informed.

    But then the media informs us. His relationship with the media is therefore part of the problem and in this case it clearly takes two to make a fight. I can remember too many biased, presumptive and loudly trumpeted takes on what Mbeki believes and means to accept that our media is fair minded. This matter of Mugabe is only one example of it. They have been playing to an intellectually stunted readership in my opinion and world history will agree with this. My feeling is that the majority of the confidently literate in our country are monstrously and heavily influenced by the Western media which after the Bush episode ( I say thus in full awareness of Gerhart’s criticism above) has been shown and continues to be shown to be totally unreliable.
    Why can’t we (Note: courtesy of the wonderful workers of SA I am part of the confidently literate group) break from the Western tradition in Africa? It is, in clear daylight, a dead horse, which smells worse with every passing day.
    We started off in a way that indicated a new future that the world would have to follow. We took the lead. The chance is not lost, but the aforementioned confidently literate are the biggest problem. Where they should be revelling in the world lead our people have presented them with them they are, instead, wingeing.
    It is shameful.

  • Kanthan Pillay

    There’s an interesting analysis of Madiba’s interaction with De Klerk which ended with him reaching out to De Klerk saying “I’m proud to hold your hand”. Most newspapers led with that picture. Check out

    Simon: You are dealing in logic. Thought Leader readers deal in emotion. Be afraid, be very afraid.

  • Thabisa

    Simon made an interesting argument but it is hardly factual. He is making assumptions and interesting ones for that matter. Here is the reality. The mad man who is illegally ruling Zimbabwe is killing innocent Zimbabweans. At this murderous rate we would expect more than 10 000 to be dead by August. He needs to be stopped immediately. Remember he started his murderous rage in 2000 not to mention the genocide of the 80’s. What is the role of silent (read nonexistent) diplomacy in such a crisis? Is there any evidence that SADC would get Mugabe to resign in the next month or so? Should we then wait till 20 000 people are dead before UN intervenes. African watched Rwandans extinguishing each other. They are still watching the carnage in Sudan. Can Simon explain what would make the difference in Zimbabwe?

  • Len van der Merwe

    It is so nice to see a point being made based on experience and knoweldge rather than the typical loud diplomacy which is now responsible for the shambles that is Iraq. Can someone tell me what has Bush achieved in Iraq? Saddam Hussein is dead, but so is thousands of civilians and hundreds of American soldiers. This is more damage than Saddam Hussein was capable of.
    In every negotiated settlement, the peacebroker always ends up taking much of the flak. The good broker accepts it as part of the job, while the fair weather negotiators take it as a weakness. The ANC received a lot of flack for negotiating with the apartheid murderers. even the NPA got a lot of flack for forgiving Vlok and Co. In any situation where you are trying to bring two parties together, they will challenge you to test your willingness to achieve the results you want. Mugabe is certainly not the easiest person to deal with and President Mbeki would be mindful of that.
    Mugabe disliked Mandela because he took centre stage in world politics. So, President Mbeki’s involvement would not have likely received the greatest of acceptance within ZANU. I suspect that his position is still being questioned.
    President Mbeki dislike Mugabe intensely. Those who know the man, his politics and how he works would know that already. His holding hands is done as a gesture for Mugabe and not the world. Mugabe knows exactly what he is doing and obviously hopes any legitimacy in the SADC would help him with other third world countries. Notice that criticism comes exclusively from America, Britain and EC to a lesser extent.
    Nothing from India, Argentina, Brazil or other countries that form part of the various organizations that Zimbabwe is part of. Yet, we are expected to act in a manner similar to that of Bush (with his mass murder of Afghanistan and Iraqi civilians fresh in his hands) and Brown/Blair, without considering the impact of such actions. Really, what will it achieve?
    Will President Mbeki’s loud diplomacy make Mugabe eager to listen? If that was the case, the USA and Britain of Blair and Brown would have made a different. Point is, they have not and most unlikely to. Now, when the results were belatdly announced, noticed how this was accepted by many foreign countries (albeit, reluctantly).
    We were told that the recound would mean Mugabe stealing the votes, but guess what, that did not happen. Now, when the presidential results were announced, we find that Mugabe actually lost and these results closely resemble those announced by the ZEGN (Or something) which while not counting all the votes, used statistical analysis to arrive at figures of 41 to 49%. Considering errors in any methods of usiing samples, one can find this results within the sampling error. In fact, one can take MDC’s calculations allowing for a reasonable sampling error and we can see that it is possible that with a 50.3% vote, they cannot statistically (with any seriousness on their part) claim that they won without any doubts that their sampling was unreasonable.
    The results are out and it is still possible to have Mugabe kicked out and Zimbabwe starting on a new page of history. Whether this will bring about Zambian changes or South African changes will be a matter of debate for now until the next elections in that country.
    for now, as much as president mbeki hates Mugabe has very little option but to ensure his process continues even if it means he takes flack.
    I hear those that expect us to do more. Do more what? What can the UN do, which they did not do in Iraq or the several interventions they failed to achieve in Israel? what have they done in Darfur, Somalia, Burma, China, Phillipines, Malaysia? Now that the UN is run by a US puppet, expect the UN to rumberstand every Republican decision around the world, when McCain takes over as President

  • Len van der Merwe

    grant montgomery,

    Your questions not withstanding, can you list the achievements in Zimbabwe of loud diplomacy? Can you explain to us what the UN has achieved by actually discussing the Mugabe issue?
    Criticise President’s “silent” diplomacy, but do you think ZANU-PF introduced all the measures that made the elections transparent on their own? Do you think ZANU-PF would have allowed the results of the recount to stand, if everyone had followed the UN and US examples of distancing themselves from the process? Do you think Zanu-PF would have introduced the innovation of posting results outside the polling booth to allow for the verification we saw in the past 2 weeks?
    It is one thing to criticise blindly because it serves your political belief to do so, but one needs to admit where they are wrong.
    Odd that many of the problems Africa is experiencing today is as a result of Western involvement whether it be colonization or the cold war (the COL effect).
    Yes, Africa has sorted out her own problems and that is what makes Bush so pitifully vindictive.
    It was a Ghananian that sorted out the mess in Kenya (another US supported dictator refusing to lose gracefully). It was president Mbeki that saw the peaceful transition to democracy in the DRC and Uganda. It was President Mandela that saw to the end of sanctions against Libya and the negotiations that led to the trial of those accused of bombing the PANAM flight over Lockerbie. Yes, there are many problems in Africa, but mention one that Bush, Blair, Ban ki,Brown or Bill have sorted out that would make them the better contenders to ending the problems in Zimbabwe.
    Talking of Bush, consider that more than 1000 people died in Iraq in April adding another 1000 to a number of people killed as a result of the strife brought about by another regime change. Odd that Bush’s own ascendancy was as a result of the courts, and not the will of the people of Florida, giving him the win. Guess who appointed the judges? Daddy and Uncle Ronald, of course.
    As for Blair, he intentionally lied to his own public to support Bush’s war in Iraq. As a result, the wooden and personality deficient Brown is suffering being trumped by a racist Boris Johnson.
    Ask yourself why the USA, Brown, and Co have been silent about China? Yes, they allowed their people to riot, but have themselves not made it clear where they stand. They trade with China and have not asked for Sanctions. Ban Ki Moon has not asked for a session on China or even Burma. Hardly anything is done about Somalia.
    Is that we should look forward to LOUD diplomacy, or is this another case where we simply oppose because we are allowed to and can, rather engage in an intellectual exercise befitting claims of the intelligence we often claim for ourselves?
    What alternative do we have in Zim? Please list those with reasons why those alternatives would work, when every other utterance by Blair was used to woo supporters for Mugabe?

  • Gerhart

    MidaFo, Being part of the “confidently literate group (whatever this is supposed to mean) by courtesy of the wonderful workers of SA” does not automatically guarantee being part of a group who applies this so called “confident literacy” in a pragmatic and logical way.If the new African ideology demands the detachment of Africa from Western influence, it is imperative to ensure at first that all prerequisites are in place.Among these would be the need for COMPETENT,NON CORRUPT and ACCOUNTABLE GOVERNMENT which has yet to be found anywhere in Africa after more than 50 years of post clonialism. One only has to look at the dismal post colonial economic and social performance records of most African Governments to realise that such a detachment from Western Influence would spell disaster, especially for the “wonderful workers” in SA and in Africa as a whole.It would be interesting to see which Country were to fill eventually the void left by the West. CHINA perhaps? If so, brace yourselves for a new era of Colonialism!

  • Len van der Merwe

    Why do so many people deal in absolutes. By pointing out that Africa has started to take charge of her affairs and that President Mbeki’s role is indeed a poison chalice which often attracts the wrong attention does not mean one advocates a detached Africa. Obviously, we all need each other but that does not mean we have to will nilly accept US interventions, when their record of interventions is pretty pathetic. Take whatever era, choose whatever president and I guarante you will find some murderous swine who saw an opportunity to test their advanced arms for the benefit of the US arms industry, not to mention oil companies.
    When George Bush went into Iraq, the price of oil was $25 a barrel. Now, it is closer to $125 than $100. What has that done?
    Well, consider the credit crunch in the US and Europe. Consider the highly inflated price of food leading to the poor suffering the most.
    I am not even mentioning the death and destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan.
    It is that kind of colonialism that Africa does not need.
    China’s involvement has been more developmental than the European concept of trade.
    Why is Chinese imperialism any more dangerouns than European and American imperialism? Perhaps as european you would see benefits to european domination? I certainly doubt if it will make much difference as Iraq has more dead than Tibet

  • Paul Whelan


    ‘Can you list the achievements in Zimbabwe of loud diplomacy?’


    ‘Can you explain what the UN has achieved by discussing the Mugabe issue?’

    Continuing exposure.

    Mugabe would prefer people kept quiet about it.

    But – and this is much of his problem – people just won’t let him alone.

  • Gerhart

    The notion that China’s involvement in Africa is more developmental is incorrect and bordering on the naive.If anything, China’s involvement in Africa is expansionist and not dissimilar from European Colonialism at the beginning of the 20 th century. While I agree with the basic principle of developing a separate African Foreign Policy it requires competent, non corrupt and accountable government as a foundation for success.For example, this foundation is unfortunately sadly lacking as already demonstrated by SA on two occasions while holdig the rotating Chair at the UN security council.However the debate seems to stray more and more into the international arena instead of confining itself to our regional problems and the Thought Leader article above.
    In the end it boils down to the old Roman doctrine:

  • Len van der Merwe

    Paul Whelan,
    Yes, what great exposure it was. It fed the people of the country, reduced inflation to single digits and the currency is no longer a joke.
    Yes, I hear there is a new stable diet in Zim. It is called EXPOSURE.
    I hope you were joking Paul and if that was the case, I would hire you as a stand-up comedian anytime.
    You are good.
    Agree, let facts speak for themselves. China’s involvement in Africa has been anything but similar to the European Colonialism concept which continues today in the form of AIDE.
    We can debate this until the cows come, but it comes to perception and not fact. europe especially Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal showed a remarkable inability to share the riches with the countries they colonised. The Dutch preferred taking over the land and subjecting the people into nonentities in their own country. The Germans and Italians were not that much wonderful either.
    But, thanks to a more reason debate than the regular shouting which hapens too often.

  • Paul Whelan


    Your questions were quite clear. You asked what has loud diplomacy, and the UN discussing the matter, achieved in Zimbabwe.

    The answer to both questions is exposure.

    If you meant to ask some other question, for instance, How has loud diplomacy solved the problem in Zimbabwe? – you should have made that clear. That has a different answer.

    Nothing to date has solved the problem in Zimbabwe.

  • amused reader

    Fascinating article on the the whole Zimbabwe saga, and Thabo Mbeki’s role. The writer suggests a more sinister role for Mbeki than is generally accepted.

  • Shelgrog

    Simom Simon Simon. You HAVE to re-read your article and you HAVE to admit you made an error. Please look at the big picture. Not just certain incidents recently past. Zimbabwe does not have a democracy. It has no credible judiciary. It has no currency. It has no free press. It has no food. And what about Bob?
    Bob is a person quite capable of pointing a gun at an innocent human and pulling the trigger. He won’t be seen doing it but he has loyal followers who do it for him with his blessing. He has zero compassion, zero humanity, zero tolerance of opponents. He must be compared to the Hitler’s, Amin’s and Saddam’s of this world.
    How can you even suggest a kid gloves, quite diplomacy tactic with him? A helping out the box… Would you also suggest that they be given mansions overlooking Clifton, a fleet of limousines and a lifetime pension of lets say 10 million rand per annum?

  • Phil

    There is a rule in diplomacy that you should only speak when it is an improvement over silence. I do not understand the obsession with whether Mbeki would say that Zimbabwe was a crisis or insist, as he did, that the situation was “manageable.” Calling it a crisis doesn’t do a thing toward solving the problem while saying it is manageable,it seems to me, encourages people to continue working for and focusing on finding a solution. In the end the latter is the more responsible behavior.

    There is an election in just 22 days, why doesn’t everyone just shut up for a while and let us see what comes out of it. It is probably going to be a messy outcome that will take some time after the vote for the SADC election observers to sort out, but let’s at least have some respect for the process that is in place.

    If Mugabe steals the election or refuses to respect the outcome by mid-July, then we will have a new situation that will require a new response. But let’s try to keep our minds clear and proceed in a serious, businesslike manner toward a shared goal.

    And let’s stop demonizing Mbeki. I remember when I read Mbeki’s weekly letter in 2001 about the Zambians blocking Chiluba from amending the constitution to allow himself a third term. Mbeki wrote all kinds of things about how the era of presidents for life in Africa was over. In reading it, my instant impression was that he was in fact not writing about Zambia, he was writing about Zimbabwe. I cannot imagine after reading that Letter from the President to the ANC that he has any sympathy for a guy who has clung to power for almost thirty years. But, like the rest of us, he has to find a way to solve the problem not just chit chat about it.