Newsmaker – The Zulu on Mugabe's stoep

2013-07-28 14:00

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Her frank criticism of Zimbabwe’s upcoming election has seen Lindiwe Zulu getting the cold shoulder from governments on both sides of the border. But she isn’t fazed.

Lindiwe Zulu, the South African presidential emissary to Zimbabwe, lay low as her boss publicly rebuked her for speaking out on our northern neighbour’s chances for free and fair elections next week.

The presidency’s rebuke comes barely weeks after Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe labelled Zulu “stupid” and a “street woman” for voicing her support for the postponement of this week’s election for a further fortnight.

The 55-year-old international relations adviser to President Jacob Zuma merely noted her concern that “things on the ground are not looking good”.

In an unprecedented move, the presidency criticised Zulu, without naming her, for making “unauthorised statements”.

And although she is said to feel “hurt” by the rebuke, she is not talking about it. She declined an interview this week, lest attention be drawn away from the all-important polls.

The ANC is also said to be unhappy with Mugabe’s repeated insults of one of its cadres and will request a meeting with Zanu-PF. But not this month.

Those who know her say Zulu is known to speak her mind in the eggshell-stepping world of international diplomacy, in which she is a controversial figure.

They paint a picture of a woman who is approachable, easy to talk to and who radiates charm and ease in a world where others display their power. ANC international relations head Obed Bapela said Mugabe’s attacks on Zulu were “regrettable”.

“Comrade Zulu is a leader, an activist and a cadre of note who contributed to liberation as a member of Umkhonto weSizwe. She continues to contribute in government,” says Bapela, who also serves with Zulu on the party’s powerful national executive committee.

Zimbabwean academic Ibbo Mandaza, who first met Zulu at the recent Southern African Development Community meeting in Maputo, describes her as a consummate professional who is appreciated by all players across party lines in his country.

He says Zulu – a mother of four and grandmother of five – has come under fire because the “stakes are high”.

“When you are in that position, you tend to be at the cutting edge. The impression I get is that she is impartial,” he said. “People are trying to use her in a bigger fight of which the public is not aware.”

An international relations expert who worked with Zulu during the talks held at Sun City to bring stability to the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the turn of the century says Zulu played a key role behind the scenes to get the warring groups to work together during the delicate negotiations.

At the time, she was working as the chief director in charge of western and central Africa at the department of foreign affairs.

When she left the department in 2003, she joined cellular giant Vodacom as its group executive for government and international relations.

A year later, then president Thabo Mbeki appointed her South Africa’s ambassador to Brazil.

But not everyone sings Zulu’s praises.

A high-profile diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said she did not receive another international posting after

Brazil because she did not do well there.

He said that was why Zuma appointed her ANC communications head after Mbeki’s ousting in Polokwane in 2007. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow.

Of her current emissary role, the diplomat said her performance had “created diplomatic problems not just for Mugabe and Zimbabwe”.

“This is not the first time South Africa has been mandated to facilitate peace in Zimbabwe. If you look at the Thabo Mbeki era, you never heard (his legal adviser) Mojanku Gumbi or (presidency director-general) Frank Chikane pronounce on the talks, but Thabo Mbeki himself.”

It was “unusual for a member of the facilitation team to be talking openly to the media about the process, and the diplomat said this never happened during Mbeki’s intervention in South Sudan or former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano’s mediation in Madagascar.

It was a violation of diplomatic protocol to suggest that Zimbabwe was facing a crisis that could scupper the elections. “Zulu is not only undiplomatic,” he said. “She is a loose cannon.”

Others say Zuma relies more on International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane than his foreign policy adviser for advice.

But an ANC insider close to Zulu says she believes the president would not have appointed her if he did not value her contribution.

“Going into Polokwane,” he said, “Zulu was no power broker, so there was no need to give her a position based on a constituency or support.

“I don’t believe the issues of the past two weeks have been about her mistakes. It’s purely political posturing by Mugabe that was preceded by earlier Zanu-PF statements. Whatever the facilitator says can be used by the parties. What the president has done is to depoliticise this,” he said.

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