Thabo Mbeki, the Weak Link in the Negotiations Chain

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 

By Rejoice Ngwenya, Harare, Zimbabwe 

Rejoice NgwenyaThabo Mbeki, the disgraced former president of South Africa and the SADC-anointed mediator in the Zimbabwe crisis spent four days last week in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, wrestling with Robert Mugabe’s brittle ego to save the power-sharing deal. He failed.

Failure to reach an agreement is a serious indictment on Mbeki’s ability to produce favourable political results when it matters most. He is simply not a tough negotiator.

Most political analysts agree that events leading to Mbeki’s ouster deflated his ego, and by the time a High Court judge pronounced his guilt of manipulating the process to trash Jacob Zuma, Mr. Mbeki was all too eager to surrender. If he could not handle Jacob Zuma, walking into the furnace of Zimbabwe’s deadly political courtyard is what they call in American wrestling a high risk manoeuvre, especially if one’s political reputation is already under scrutiny. 

The three parties in Zimbabwe’s political wild fire are all tough nuts to crack, and anyone who approaches them with ecumenical overtones is bound to fail.

Robert Mugabe is single-handedly credited with destroying one of the biggest political brand names in Africa – Joshua Nkomo and his Patriotic Front – Zimbabwe African People’s Union PF- ZAPU. In December 1987, Joshua Nkomo ceded his political constituency to a grinning Mugabe who promptly erased the ZAPU logo and swallowed the entire national PF-ZAPU structure. A token gesture of vice-presidential posts and meaningless Home Affairs ministerial appointments is what Nkomo managed to salvage to pacify his hapless supporters.

Incidentally, current power-sharing talks have evoked ghosts of the 1987 Unity Accord where so-called PF-ZAPU representatives in Mugabe’s current political arrangement fear for their future. Vice president John Msika, John Nkomo, Simon Khaya-Moyo, Sithembiso Nyoni, Angeline

Masuku and Sikhanyiso Ndlovu are alleged to be insisting that a new power sharing deal should respect the 1987 Unity Accord for their inclusion in critical security ministries. Others like Enos Nkala, Dumiso Dabengwa, Mabhena, and Edward Ndlovu had already seen the light and abandoned Mugabe’s gluttonous ZANU-pf. It is unlikely that Thabo Mbeki has the depth and canny ability to handle such complexities.

On the other hand, Morgan Tsvangirayi is a seasoned campaigner for political rights. Between 1980 and now, out of the ten or so individuals who have tried unsuccessfully to challenge Mugabe’s hegemonic tyranny, Tsvangirayi can be said to be the most successful. The list of Mugabe’s political scalps includes, as indicated above, Joshua Nkomo, the late Ndabaningi Sithole, and the late Justice Dumbutshena, Edgar Tekere, Margaret Dongo, the late Kempton Makamure and Wurayayi Zembe. Others are too insignificant for inclusion in this treatise.

Tsvangirayi stands out prominent, in that in all subsequent Presidential and Parliamentary elections since 2000, his Movement for Democratic Change can be said to have won had it not been for Mugabe’s chicanery. Thus Mbeki has to contend with a man who has brought Mugabe to the negotiating table. In more ways than one, the 29 March 2008 electoral majority proved that Tsvangirayi, not Mugabe, should be head of class.

It is said Thabo Mbeki is an intellectual of world acclaim, but he is certainly not in the orbit of Professor Arthur Mutambara, head of the other MDC formation. Many defeatists had predicted that Mutambara would collapse before crossing the finishing line, but as you read this article; his formation is a major king-maker in the New House of Assembly.

Mutambara has survived a torrent of infectious criticism and personal insults mainly from Tsvangirayi’s legion of global extremists whose only knowledge of democracy is to spell the word. In fact, had Tsvangirayi acceded to Mutambara’s pre-29 March overtures for electoral collaboration, Mugabe’s political constituency would now have shrunk to near insignificance. Mutambara’s ability to balance intellectual rational and political sense has made him a survivor, and it is hard to even perceive how Mbeki would have gotten through Tsvangirayi without Mutambara’s mediation.

And so if Mbeki had been as good as SADC would have make us believe, he would have dismissed Mugabe’s claim to authority with contempt. In simple terms, he should have reminded Mugabe that losing a not so free and fair election in March, a whittled Parliamentary majority and shameful reputation cannot give a man competitive advantage in political negotiations.

Unfortunately, Mbeki, who will have to be eternally grateful to  former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota for hedging his political career, had no guts and so Mugabe still has the leeway to play big man, much to the chagrin of bemused Zimbabweans.   

Rejoice Ngwenya is regular columnist for He heads the leading reformist group, Coalition for Market  and Liberal Solutions in Harare, Zimbabwe.