From master illusionist to mure delusionist

2008-06-28 00:00

For more than six years President Thabo Mbeki has been swirling the magician’s cape and brandishing the top hat. The rabbit, however, has remained elusive.

South Africa’s leading illusionist’s trumpeted sleight of hand has failed to conjure a solution to the Zimbabwean crisis. The tired performance plays itself out before an increasingly restless and sceptical audience, the would-be David Copperfield repeatedly outwitted by that consummate Houdini, President Robert Mugabe.

To get a sense of the hubris and delusional vanity of Mbeki’s administration it is worth revisiting a Business Day article by presidential advisor Tony Heard, written shortly after Zimbabwe’s election day but long before the results were announced. Heard declared that Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy and “deft statesmanship” had been vindicated.

Not only had “elections … free and fair enough to produce a valid result been held” but presidential change, too, was “nigh”. “So it is time to doff our hats to the person who helped lead an undramatic initiative with such a dramatic outcome: Thabo Mbeki,” oozed Heard.

This week opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from yesterday’s presidential run-off because of the systematic murder of his supporters by Mugabe’s thugs. He took refuge in the Dutch Embassy.

The United Nations, African Union and Southern African Development Community swept Mbeki’s silent diplomacy aside in a wave of condemnation of Mugabe. It is risible, but nevertheless remarkable, that even the leaders of Swaziland, Angola and Kenya —hardly great examples of democracy — are pressuring Mugabe to step down and accept the will of the electorate.

Nelson Mandela has spoken out and so, too, has African National Congress president Jacob Zuma. Zimbabwe faces isolation and further economic dislocation. The British monarch has revoked Mugabe’s honorary knighthood.

In all, not much of a vindication of Mbeki’s “deft statesmanship”.

Mbeki likes to quote assassinated Guinea-Bissau politician and theorist, Amilcar Cabral, who warned: “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” And as Mbeki said in a speech last year: “Clearly, to avoid telling lies and claiming easy victory means to know the actual reality and tell the truth as it is.”

There is obviously something of a gulf between the philosophy being peddled by Mbeki and the actual handling of the Zimbabwean crisis. The only question is whether the refusal to seize the nettle is based on self-delusion or a deliberate attempt to delude everyone else.

In a way, it does not matter any longer. Mbeki, George W. Bush’s designated “point man” on Zimbabwe has become the pointless man. South Africa still hopes for an 11th hour deal but even if some kind of deal is brokered over the next days, weeks or months it will no longer be because of Mbeki, but despite him.

Heard bragged that Mbeki’s approach was better than “invasion, ostracism or switching the lights off”. Invasion, of course, is a canard since no one seriously has suggested SA do so, nor does the SA National Defence Force any longer have the capacity to do so successfully.

But ostracism and economic leverage are options. So, too, are selective sanctions against the Zanu-PF leadership and Zimbabwe’s exclusion from sporting, educational and cultural exchanges.

So, too, is the diplomatic pressure exerted by a bluntly undiplomatic SA condemnation of the Harare regime and its depredations against its own citizens. So, too, is the threat of SA support for prosecuting the Zanu-PF leadership in the International Criminal Court for genocide and human rights abuses.

The world ended the apartheid regime by taking united and escalating action against it. Zimbabwe, in comparison, is an easier nut to crack.

Mbeki’s amateurish magicking is now just a sideshow.

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