- Former President Thabo Mbeki is a seasoned mediator in African conflicts, but it is unclear whether he can come up with the goods to deliver something the political parties in Zimbabwe will identify with.
By Tichaona Zindoga
Former South African president Thabo Mbeki was an unexplained no-show in Harare last week after he had been expected to return to the Zimbabwean capital to advance mediation among the country’s political parties.
During a visit mid-December 2019, Mbeki met President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Nelson Chamisa and a number of smaller opposition party leaders, constituting a loose coalition which Mnangagwa called the Political Actors Dialogue (Polad).
Mbeki’s visit, which also saw him paying a visit to former president Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace, to convey his condolences – which he had not done – was seen as his second mission of mediation in Zimbabwe. Let’s call it “Mbeki Mediation 2.0”.
The statesman is credited with successfully negotiating a power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and his formidable rival, former firebrand trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai during the period 2007-2008 that resulted in a hybrid government between 2009 and 2013.
Information at hand shows that Mbeki does not have clear terms of reference from either the Southern African Development Community (SADC) or the government of Zimbabwe.
In other words, his latest attempts at mediating the Zimbabwe crisis are little more than a solitary adventure. The protagonists themselves are holding Mbeki at arm’s length.
Yet, it is hoped that Mbeki can still hold a magic wand and conjure something that will be good, indeed something political players will want to identify with.
In essence, it is still a cautious game. But, what is at stake in these talks?
An African Messiah
Mbeki is South Africa’s best diplomatic export, after Nelson Mandela, and has been involved in mediation in some of Africa’s hotspots for the past three decades. He is a firm believer in “African solutions to African problems”, and the idea of an African renaissance.
Poignantly, he is the author of a moving ode, titled I am African. His mediation in Zimbabwe between 2007 and 2008 was a particular high point, even though it came with its own controversies. He is familiar with the country’s political landscape and its evolution.
With Zimbabwe facing socio-economic and political problems, Mbeki’s antenna is well up. He may feel that the “Zimbabwean problem” is his problem.
He would also be trusted by other interests in the region and beyond to tie his shoes in anticipation of a journey north, at the slightest hint of trouble. It’s called institutional memory.
So, with signs of trouble in Zimbabwe, a country beset by drought and economic problems as well as stirring political questions, Mbeki is the natural envoy.
It remains to be seen how the safari will pan out this time around.
Who was it that wrote, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”?
By credible measure, Mnangagwa is the legitimate head of state and government, after winning elections in 2018, the first post-Mugabe polls. The uneasiness that has afflicted his tenure is historical.
On one hand, he has to heal the deep structural economic problems that he inherited from Mugabe, which he is frantically trying to address. Mugabe also left him the political problem of polarisation whereby the country is deeply divided and constantly at war with itself. Mugabe left quite big shoes for his successor to fill and Mnangagwa appears too soft, and indecisive at times.
This lack of confidence could be the reason why, despite a clear mandate, the former Mugabe lieutenant appears overwhelmed with responsibility. There is also the uncanny drought phenomenon, which has dogged the country and is likely to worsen this year.
A political development that reduces the heat towards him is something the president will welcome – perhaps not so publicly. It should also not be lost to us that since he took over from Mugabe in 2017, Mnangagwa has toyed with the idea of a more inclusive political dispensation and even invited Chamisa to become Leader of Opposition in Parliament, which no doubt would have been very generous in terms. Mnangagwa can talk to anyone – he also showed magnanimity when he won again in 2018 – but his offers have been ignored so far.
The idea of Polad was a noble and tactical one, meant to eventually see Chamisa joining the dialogue, but Chamisa has refused to take the bait, preferring to play hardball.
For all intents and purposes, the opposition leader wants talks that will eventually see him commanding a key seat at the governing table. He refused an invitation to become Leader of Opposition – an office that Mnangagwa mulled creating for Chamisa after the elections in 2018. He has spurned Polad.
Yet, it is clear that the more he plays hardball, the greater his chances are of not getting anything at all. Look at recent headlines in the national press. They are telling us Chamisa is warming up to the Mbeki dialogue et cetera, indicating that Chamisa identifies the last chance saloon that Mbeki offers.
Last month, Mbeki reportedly met Chamisa twice, placing much weight on talks.
After failing to convince the courts that he won the elections in 2018, and after the best efforts to incorporate him by Mnangagwa, there is clearly a limit to what somebody can do.
In a few months, if anything does not materialise, Mnangagwa will drop all accommodation and look inwards, and towards retaining power for himself and his party without the inconvenience of including his rivals in government.
‘Pawns’ in Polad
Polad, which is comprised of 19 or so parties that raked in less than 1% of the electorate in the 2018 elections, is seen to be playing a dual role. It is a façade of national dialogue, which the president can show to the international community as evidence of inclusivity.
Secondly, and tactically, it is seen as a way of coaxing Chamisa into dialogue by creating a bandwagon of talks. It has not exactly worked. Chamisa has demanded direct talks with Mnangagwa.
Both the fact that Polad does not command numbers or respect and the fact that they have openly aligned with Mnangagwa, to the extent of being hosted by him at his farm during December 2019, have done much to damage their standing and credibility. But in the Mbeki talks, they are demanding to be heard too.
They are also demanding that all mediation or talks should take place within the framework of Polad, something that Mnangagwa has emphasised to Mbeki.
It takes little to locate the role of this grouping, however, in the end, it also contains some recognisable characters such as Lovemore Madhuku, Thokozani Khupe and Linda Masarira, whose roles may become more defined, and indeed who may stand to gain should it come to spoils.
Waiting for the rain…
It remains to be seen how, and when, Mbeki’s mediation will pan out. Someone says it is entirely up to him and his devices. It is not clear, yet, who pays his bills.
Many stakeholders will be watching closely. In particular, South Africa is an interested party, knowing how a deepening crisis up north could negatively affect it.
Already, this January, there has been a reported upsurge of Zimbabweans trekking South for greener pastures. Drought is threatening to plunge as many as eight million Zimbabweans into starvation and a politically unstable country can only make the situation worse. Daily Maverick