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.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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