Izwi Grilled

Here’s a Q&A on Thabo Mbeki and Zimbabwe I did with Murray Williams for the Cape Argus’ Friday Grill column.

MW: Do white South Africans reserve special hatred for President Robert Mugabe because he is black?

Izwi: I can’t speak for others. As far as I’m concerned, misrule is misrule is misrule. The one specifically race-related objection I have to Mugabe’s conduct is that he is reinforcing every terrible stereotype about this continent and its people.

MW: Has Mbeki been answerable to South Africans about his policy on Zimbabwe?

Izwi: We live in a democracy so of course Mbeki is answerable for all his actions on any issue. He did a lot of answering in Polokwane last December.

MW: Why did he not explain what his strategy was painstakingly and at length until his shareholders, the people of South Africa, understood?

Izwi: Does a chess player announce his strategy to his opponent ahead of time? Does a poker player show his hand before the call? There’s no mystery about the outcome Mbeki would like to see in Zimbabwe — a country back on the road to prosperity under a government that genuinely reflects the will of Zimbabweans. Telegraphing every move ahead of time isn’t going to help us get there.

MW: South Africa is the continent’s powerhouse, making Mbeki a senior leader on the international stage. Some think he has allowed Mugabe to laugh him off and publicly humiliate South Africa.

Izwi: Being the region’s powerhouse does not mean we have unlimited power. No one has that. The US, a superpower, has wanted to see its neighbour, Cuba, free of Fidel Castro since 1959. Fidel has outlasted nine US presidents. I suppose you could say he has humiliated the US.  The Bay of Pigs was certainly a humiliation but what does that really mean today? Is the US somehow a lesser power for having failed to secure regime change in Havana?

MW: You have argued that Mbeki’s “power” to influence events in Zimbabwe was limited and he did the best he could. How can we know this when he didn’t try tougher measures?

Izwi: What tougher measures? Mugabe has already done more damage to the Zimbabwean economy than any conceivable sanctions regime. You want us to invade? You think we should be arming the MDC as was argued on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal this week? Or should we take a leaf out the CIA’s Cuba playbook and try assassination? Not really our thing.

MW: Did the lives at stake in Zimbabwe not warrant Mbeki’s playing hardball, even if there was no guarantee of success?

Izwi: Again, what do you mean by hardball? I agree that lives are at stake. That is why Mbeki is working to bring the crisis to a soft and lasting landing just as we did here 14 years ago. I would also say that hardball is in fact being played. Mugabe stayed away from the emergency SADC summit in Lusaka because he was not invited as a head of state but was told he would be received on an equal footing with Morgan Tsvangirai. That sent a pretty tough signal. You can be sure he picked it up.

MW: Is there a chance that Zimbabweans have been demoralised by the perceived lack of support by South Africa and that this discouraged stronger protest against the Mugabe government?

Izwi: That’s a question for Zimbabweans. I must say they did not seem so demoralised on March 29 when they went to the polls and voted overwhelmingly for change. That took a lot of morale.

MW: Do you, and does Mbeki, think that Mugabe is a sane, reasonable and caring man?

Izwi: Mbeki’s inclination, I believe, would be to avoid demonising the man, just as he avoided demonising PW Botha in his online letter after the Groot Krokidil’s death in 2006. To the contrary, he was willing to pay tribute to PW as a “partner” with Oliver Tambo “in the creation of the peace of the brave that is our blessing”. Think about that.

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