Mbeki's failure over Zimbabwe

Even the South African mediators involved in talks with Zimbabwe are frustrated over the South Afric

The appearance of Jacob Zuma in London this week is a carefully-crafted reassurance, for the benefit of the West, that all will be well in South Africa under his leadership. It is also intended to be a demonstration of clear blue water between him and Thabo Mbeki over Zimbabwe. Zuma’s dissatisfaction with Mbeki’s mediatory efforts, and his even greater dissatisfaction with Robert Mugabe, are well-known.

Even so, he chose his words carefully, both praising such mediation that has occurred, and not condemning Mugabe in public. He might, after all, inherit the same troublesome president of Zimbabwe as his neighbour.

But Zuma adds his weight to a growing Southern African regional concern over the contortions in Zimbabwe. Zambia’s President Mwanawasa was forthright in calling upon all neighbouring states not to allow the Chinese ship, carrying arms for Zimbabwe, to dock. The new half-white President Khama of Botswana is unhappy with Mugabe’s rhetoric against residual white ownership of the continent, and many are upset that the Mauritius Protocols on how to conduct free and transparent elections has had the transparency element so visibly flouted in the tortoise pace of counting the votes.

Zuma also has an electoral problem on his own hands. With 3 million Zimbabweans on South African soil, there is a real social and economic problem which will manifest itself in next year’s South African elections. The ANC is frightened that, after the years of lacklustre Mbeki leadership, it will have a greatly reduced majority. Mbeki’s failure to achieve breakthrough in Zimbabwe cannot have helped.

The South African efforts over Zimbabwe have in fact been assiduous. But even the key South African mediators – of the very highest rank and skill – have been frustrated both by Mugabe himself and by Mbeki’s failure to ‘put in the boot’ at critical junctures. There has been a string of instances over two years where agreement had been reached on key issues concerning the Zimbabwean elections, only for Mugabe himself to refuse to honour what his own negotiators had agreed.

There are five reasons for Mbeki’s extraordinary patience. The first is that he does not see Mugabe as a lone figure, but one who owes his increasingly precarious position to the support of his hardline generals. Some say that these generals have already instigated a coup of sorts and Mugabe is their captive. This overstates the issue, but Mbeki knows the hardliners will not disappear at his say-so.

The second is that neither he, nor almost any leader in Africa, sees Morgan Tsvangirai as a viable alternative president. This is unfair to Tsvangirai, who has come a long way and who would accept a unity government to ensure continuity and the preservation of vested interests, but he is a very rough diamond indeed, and the choice is between him and a diamond that cuts the wrong way.

The third is that Mbeki and Mugabe simply get on intellectually. The huge change in tone in the regular ANC newsletters, now that Zuma is writing them, is striking. Gone are the erudite and literary qualities that Mbeki brought. Quite simply, Mbeki and Mugabe are the two intellectuals of the region’s presidents, and Mbeki always thought, wrongly, he could make reason prevail.

The fourth is that Mugabe genuinely holds Mbeki, and many other African presidents, in thrall. His personal charisma and position as the grand old man of liberation gives him both seniority and pedigree that no one else can match. What is taken as senseless rhetoric in the West is a rhetoric of great meaning in a continent where the welts and scars of racism and colonialism will take another generation to heal.

Fifthly, Mbeki simply has blind spots – a capacity for sustained stubbornness even where his preconceptions have been demonstrated as palpably wrong. The HIV/AIDS question was the most famous of these, but dithering over Mugabe’s Zimbabwe will run it close.

The electoral rhetoric of Jacob Zuma will address all of the Mbeki weaknesses. In a very real sense, without a coordinated opposition to face, Zuma must recapture the ANC vote by distancing himself from Mbeki as much as possible. Unfortunately, this will also involve distancing himself from many of Mbeki’s most skilful advisers, and Zuma will replace them with his own hard men and women, not all with savoury backgrounds, who organised his victory as leader of the ANC.

Making a clear distinction between himself and Mbeki over Zimbabwe is in some respects an easy way to start. Zuma is street-smart without being intellectual. He knows that this will win him votes. He knows also the one glaring fact that Mbeki has shrugged aside. With meltdown in Zimbabwe, South Africa’s dream of an integrated economic region has also gone. Five key states with growing economies and stable government would have led the way – South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia. They would have punched their weight economically against the rest of Europe minus the big four of Germany, France, UK and Italy. They would have made an impact, finally, for Africa. Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe ruined all that.

With his promises to bring a better life to the millions of South Africans who have not benefited from the changes begun by Mbeki, the last thing Zuma needs are desperate Zimbabweans on his doorstep and in his home. There is not that much moral commitment to democracy here, nor to the redress of a humanitarian disaster in a neighbouring country. Mbeki, meanwhile, has made far too much moral commitment to a bankrupt cause and his failure over Robert Mugabe will haunt his reputation for many long years to come.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times