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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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State