South Africa's support for Mugabe

Thabo Mbeki has propped up Zimbabwe's dictator at great cost to the region and his own reputation, says R.W. Johnson.

IN FEBRUARY 2000, on the eve of Zimbabwe's constitutional referendum, President Thabo Mbeki cancelled a long-standing commitment to attend the opening of the Nelson Mandela Museum. Instead, he rushed up to Harare, accompanied by a high-powered team including his ministers of finance, energy and minerals, and offered President Robert Mugabe an R800m loan with which to purchase fuel and electricity. Zimbabweans were experiencing regular electricity cuts and chronic petrol and diesel shortages: every petrol or diesel queue was in effect a recruitment agency for the opposition and its campaign for a No vote in the referendum.

The state-owned South African electricity and oil companies, Eskom and Sasol, were already supplying Zimbabwe on credit - something others refused to do - and Eskom was owed R120m as a result. South Africa, indeed, supplies 40 per cent of all Zimbabwe's imports and Zimbabwe was living on South African credit. In addition to this largesse Mbeki also promised Mugabe that he would attempt to mediate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to release funds to Zimbabwe. After six hours of talks Zimbabwe's finance minister announced the deal to the press in Mbeki's presence.

This public display of support was intended to shore up Mugabe. But when the government lost the referendum, despite the fact that it rigged the vote where it could, Mbeki backtracked fast. First the government announced that no specific agreement had been signed; then that there was no loan at all but that South Africa would guarantee a and-denominated Zimbabwean bond; then that Mbeki would mediate for Mugabe with the World Bank. All of this quickly fell apart. It was clear that were South Africa to guarantee Mugabe's debts there would be dire consequences for South Africa's own credit rating - the country does not even guarantee bonds issued by its own parastatals such as Eskom and Telkom. Neither the World Bank nor the IMF is willing to negotiate via intermediaries and both have attached conditions to lending to Zimbabwe - the withdrawal of its troops from the Congo, budget deficit reduction and so on - which Mbeki could hardly guarantee. In the end the deal was pronounced never to have existed. Sasol, however, reported that it would supply fuel to Zimbabwe. While the oil company insisted that this deal - "our biggest ever export contract for fuel" - was purely commercial, Zimbabwe's chronic shortage of foreign exchange made this extremely speculative. It meant that South Africa had agreed to continue supplying Mugabe with enough electricity, petrol and diesel to prevent a complete economic collapse, while praying that it would get paid some day.

South Africa's policy of shoring up its neighbour might have gone unremarked had not the situation been transformed on the weekend of February 26-27 when the occupations of white farms by "war vets" began. The occupations were illegal, involved the beatings and torture of farmworkers suspected of supporting the opposition and continued throughout the year, despite repeated judicial rulings that they must cease. From this point on South African aid was propping up a regime that openly refused to accept the rule of law - even the legislation that it had itself passed during the past 20 years.

Mugabe followed up by ramming through parliament (his ruling Zanu-PF party then held 147 of the 150 seats) the clause of the Constitution that had just been rejected in the referendum, allowing him to expropriate land without compensation. These two steps immediately cut off all possibility of IMF or World Bank assistance and led the US, Sweden, Norway and Holland to cancel aid.

Both domestic and international observers waited for Mbeki to react: how could he continue to preach the African Renaissance if he did not take a stand in favour of the rule of law, against the straightforward suppression of both civil and property rights and the open resort to violence? Moreover, Mugabe was intent on insulting the British premier, Tony Blair. Having already referred to the Blair government as "gay gangsters", he now attacked Blair's "gay philosophy and gay way of life". As chairman of the Commonwealth, Mbeki might have been expected at least to distance himself from his neighbour's unprovoked homophobic attacks. But Mbeki did not react. On March 23, the government announced that Eskom was extending further aid to Mugabe by consolidating $14.4m of its $20m debt into a loan and rescheduling payment for the rest.

The business community was stupefied. The markets were thoroughly alarmed by Zimbabwe's policy of expropriation without compensation and the spectacle of a ruling African nationalist party making it clear that it would use all manner of violence rather than allow a democratic alternation in power. If Mbeki failed to take a strong and public stand against this, the conclusion could only be that, faced with a major electoral challenge, South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) might behave in the same way.

At the beginning of 2000 most analysts had forecast a strengthening of the Rand - according to almost any measure it was chronically undervalued in purchasing power. Instead a flood of selling overwhelmed fund managers as foreign investors dumped South African equities and bonds. The Rand went into free fall, ending the year almost 25 per cent down, while consumer confidence plunged to a level last seen in 1993 when large-scale civil disorder seemed about to engulf the country. Normally the South African Chamber of Business (Sacob) is loath to criticise government but CEO Kevin Wakeford could not contain himself. The Rand's fall and the large capital outflows were, he said, directly due to Pretoria's silence on Zimbabwe. "South Africa has no option but to take a position", he pleaded.

Mbeki greatly dislikes being lectured at by white businessmen and government spokesmen were immediately instructed to deny that the Rand's fall had anything to do with the president's silence on Zimbabwe. Really, the finance minister averred, it was caused by the general weakness of emerging market currencies, by the strength of the dollar and the fall of the euro. It became almost a point of honour for the government to deny the significance of the Zimbabwe factor.

Parallel with its insistence that Mbeki's silence on Zimbabwe was not the cause of the Rand's collapse, Pretoria tried to convince business that this silence masked an energetic "quiet diplomacy" and "constructive engagement". Privately it was suggested that Mbeki was only too conscious of how disastrous a leader Mugabe was but that he could have more impact on the situation if he could use an attitude of sympathy and friendship to nudge Mugabe in the right direction. This campaign had some impact. Business Day's editorial (April 17) supported Mbeki's refusal to comment on Zimbabwe and pleaded for understanding of his position. Tony O'Reilly's Independent Newspapers Group followed suit. The pressure on business to side with government culminated in the placement of adverts by the Business Trust, expressing support for Mbeki's stance on Zimbabwe.

If constructive engagement was to deserve support, it had to show results. This was the background to the Victoria Falls summit on April 21, attended by Mbeki, Mugabe, and the presidents of Namibia (Sam Nujoma) and Mozambique (Joaquim Chissano). According to Mbeki's spokesmen, he and the other presidents persuaded Mugabe to agree to stop the violence and facilitate the ultimate withdrawal of the war vets from white farms. Mbeki also asked Mugabe to cease public attacks on Blair and Britain: in return the other presidents would publicly support him. Mbeki also undertook to get Britain to make aid available for land reform in Zimbabwe as well as continuing his efforts to mediate with the IMF.

Mbeki apparently felt sanguine enough about what had been achieved to phone Blair with the news that a new chapter had been opened on the land reform question and that there would be speedy progress in settling all the other outstanding issues. Britain cautiously welcomed the summit's outcome, again declaring its readiness to finance land reform that respected the rule of law and benefited poor Zimbabweans and not, as in the past, fat cats and Mugabe's cronies.

Britain's caution was not misplaced. Both the hopes of British and IMF aid predictably came to naught, given Mugabe's refusal to stop the violence or respect the rule of law. Mbeki went away with empty promises, while Mugabe achieved immediate and public support. The summit followed a week in which Zanu-PF thugs had murdered another three activists of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and two white farmers, and in which attacks on farmworkers and torching of their houses had taken on a routine character. There was no doubt that these atrocities occurred because Mugabe willed them - and yet all three presidents came out in his support. Chissano, acting as their spokesman, claimed that Mugabe was a "master" and a "champion" of the rule of law and when reminded that foreign funding for land reform was dependent on a transparent process, Chissano replied that such thinking was very dangerous to the region. "What you are telling us is very grave. It is creating ill feelings in our hearts. You are saying it is a sin to be a freedom fighter. It is grave if the British government thinks like that." Mbeki sat by and nodded his agreement with these remarkable sentiments.

Mbeki was unwilling to criticise Mugabe's continuing human rights atrocities or even to say whose fault the violence was. Instead he tried hard to throw the blame on Britain. The core of the problem, he insisted, was one of poor landless blacks whose condition was the result of racism and colonialism: the main responsibility for the current crisis - and even the violence - lay in Britain's failure to fund land reform. He was openly critical of Britain for making the rule of law and a transparent transfer to the poor a sine qua non for funding: "I don't think it is correct for anybody to walk away from this," he declared.

Ordinary Zimbabweans, however, did not accept Mbeki's insistence that the land issue (or the whites) were the cause of the crisis. The Helen Suzman Foundation's February opinion survey showed that only 9 per cent of Zimbabweans thought land the most important issue, equal with those who thought poverty the key issue but far behind those who mentioned the fall in the Zimbabwe dollar (14 per cent), unemployment (25 per cent) or rising prices (28 per cent). Only 2 per cent thought whites were most to blame for Zimbabwe's problems, while 28 per cent blamed Mugabe and another 41 per cent his government.
Mbeki's insistence - against all the evidence - that the Zimbabwe crisis revolved around the land issue caused by white colonialism was of central significance. Once the problem was defined in that way any self-respecting African nationalist would have to side with Mugabe, whatever his faults. Many black South Africans could easily relate to this version of reality with one they knew at home. Thus, while the large majority in Zimbabwe opposed Mugabe on the land issue, a write-in survey of black opinion in the Johannesburg townships found 54 per cent siding with him.
Black nationalists in South Africa were quick to transpose the "lessons" of Zimbabwe onto South Africa. Thoko Didiza, the minister of agriculture and land affairs, was only one of several ANC politicians who began to castigate white farmers for the slow pace of land reform, insisting that the state might need to acquire their land at below market value. Sue Lund, her deputy director-general, helpfully pointed out that South Africa still had an Expropriation Act on the books. Didiza herself went off on a fact-finding tour of Zimbabwe to see what lessons could be learnt from their style of "land reform". Mbeki declared that the government would not tolerate land invasions in South Africa, but went on to attack white farmers for evicting tenants. He made no mention of the 10 white farmers killed in farm attacks in the preceding month.

Both the small radical nationalist parties to the ANC's left, the Azanian People's Organisation and the Pan Africanist Congress, announced that, on the Zimbabwean land question, they were supporting the ANC for the first time. Only too clearly, Mbeki's manner of handling the crisis had created an eager black constituency on the issue within South Africa. The real spokesman for poor blacks in Zimbabwe, Philip Munyanyi, the general secretary of the Zimbabwean Farmworkers' Union, denounced Mbeki. His people were, he said, being burnt, beaten and tortured and Mbeki uttered no word of protest. No one in South Africa paid much attention to such cries.

Within days of the Victoria Falls summit it was clear that it had failed completely. A deputation to London of three Zimbabwean ministers was told that aid depended on an end to violence and land invasions and a return to the rule of law, conditions they found unacceptable. Perhaps Mugabe had lied to Mbeki at the summit or Mbeki had chosen to hear only what he wanted. Either way Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy" lay in ruins, producing a further upsurge of criticism of his refusal to take a hard line. Mbeki's response was again to insist that the real problem in Zimbabwe was the fault of colonialism - and to suggest that his critics were racists. He doubted, he said, "whether condemning President Mugabe would solve that country's land redistribution problem. It is a problem caused by colonialism." And those who wanted Mugabe condemned were simply people who thought all black governments were alike. "Part of the reason for this demand is that there are people in society who say: If this black government in Zimbabwe can behave in such a way, what guarantee do we have that the black government in South Africa won't behave in the same way?"

Not surprisingly, this did not work and three days later Mbeki went on national television to defend his "quiet diplomacy" in even more strident terms. Attacks on this policy were, he said, "racist attempts to create an atmosphere of fear in South Africa". Such critics were trying to create "a psychosis of fear in our own country based on racist prejudices, assumptions and objectives". This merely confirmed the bleakest worries of both domestic and foreign investors and the Rand continued to fall. The next day Mbeki visited Bulawayo and, standing hand in hand with Mugabe, praised him for his wisdom, asserting that land dispossession was "one of the most iniquitous results of colonisation", that South Africa suffered from the same problem and that both countries needed to work against "this colonial legacy".

Until this point the only leading black figure to criticise Mugabe had been Archbishop Desmond Tutu. "He's almost a caricature of all the things people think black African leaders do," said Tutu. "He seems to be wanting to make a cartoon of himself." But Mbeki's stance was finally too much for former president Nelson Mandela. The day after Mbeki had appeared with Mugabe, Mandela denounced liberation leaders who "despise the people who put them in power and want to stay in power forever. They want to die in power because they have committed crimes". Asked whether he was describing Mugabe he retorted "Everyone knows very well whom I am talking about. If you don't know who I am talking about there is no point in telling you." Asked whether he supported Mbeki's policy towards Mugabe he averred loyally that he did, but added, "the masses don't have to follow that route. The public must bring down these tyrants themselves."

As the campaign for Zimbabwe's June parliamentary election got underway, there was a tremendous increase in war vet and Zanu-PF violence. Not infrequently, MDC candidates were attacked and subjected to such gross intimidation that they were unable to enter their constituencies at all, let alone campaign. The Electoral Supervisory Commission saw its functions usurped by government, international monitors were systematically blocked and hindered, the state-owned media denied the opposition airtime, and right up until the eve of poll the opposition were denied knowledge of where polling booths would be placed. Even after the election the opposition and the public were denied access to the voters' roll. Whites were often unconstitutionally barred from voting.

Strobe Talbott, the US deputy secretary of state, visiting Johannesburg in early May, expressed strong concern about the Zimbabwean situation. "Africa's friends . . . look to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to do everything it can to encourage free and fair elections and to insist on an end to the violence." The US, he promised, was ready to help Zimbabwe but "we cannot and will not offer support in a climate of violence, lawlessness and intimidation". The fact that this was headlined by the South African press as a ringing endorsement of Mbeki's position was less to do with Talbott than with the fact that the media felt pressurised to report Zimbabwean events in a way that would not overly embarrass Mbeki.

The international press, Zimbabwe's independent newspapers and the Mail & Guardian carried full accounts of the activities of Mugabe's war vets - "torture clinics", gang-rape as a deliberate intimidation tactic, and horrific pictures of opposition activists forced to sit down naked on red hot stoves. Such details did not get into the mainstream South African press, however. Instead, most of the press treated another Mugabe victory in the June 24-25 election as a foregone conclusion and gave occasional space to articles suggesting that the MDC was really run by white South African interests.

All of which focused increasing interest on whether the outside world would pronounce the elections to be free and fair. A "not free and fair" verdict would clearly embarrass Mbeki, leading to further questions as to how he could support an anti-democratic regime. It was, accordingly, apparent from a long way off that strong pressure would be applied where it could to ensure a "free and fair" verdict, whatever the facts on the ground.

Some international observers were beyond Mbeki's influence, however. The delegations which arrived from the US National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI) were, like many others, hemmed into their rooms in Harare's Meikles Hotel, and were effectively forbidden by one government restriction after another from leaving the capital to observe the election. Like all other international observers - and even journalists - they had to pay a $100 fee for being allowed to observe at all. In the end both pulled out before the election, as did the team sent by the UN, since they were simply not allowed to do their job. The head of the NDI delegation, Alex Ekwaeme, Nigeria's vice president from 1979-83, announced that conditions for a free and fair election simply did not exist, while the IRI delegation pronounced the elections as "the worst we have ever seen".

Similarly, the European Union observers - the largest of all the observer missions - excoriated the manner in which Mugabe had undermined democratic choice at every turn, as did Amnesty International, the Zimbabwean Human Rights NGO Forum, the Southern African Legal Assistance Network and a host of other monitoring and observer groups. The Mugabe government argued bitterly that it did not need or want all these foreigners coming to observe its election. It also tried hard to prevent the election monitors trained by local Zimbabwean NGOs from deploying themselves round the country. In the end less than a quarter were able to do their job.

The key point made by the NDI, IRI, Amnesty and the other groups above was that, irrespective of what happened on polling day, the election could not be judged free and fair because of what had happened in the months before it: the extensive violence and intimidation against the opposition, the refusal of fair media access and the multiple administrative irregularities in the organisation of the election itself. It seemed clear, for example, that the electoral register included the names of many dead or bogus voters, creating huge opportunities for electoral fraud. The government would not allow anyone to examine the register even though they were constitutionally bound to do so.

These advance conclusions that the elections could not be free and fair were not congenial to Mbeki. On June 12 he gave an exclusive interview to the Independent Group press in which he insisted "We want free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. We are against stolen elections." But, he added, no one could have any idea at this stage whether they would be free and fair: such opinions were wholly speculative. This pretence of neutrality was doubly bogus. It not only disregarded the wave of human rights violations occurring just across the border but also the close alliance that now existed between the ANC and Zanu-PF.
A Zanu-PF delegation led by Zimbabwean minister of home affairs John Nkomo had been greeted with great warmth by ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe in Johannesburg just a fortnight before. The ANC sided unequivocally with Zanu-PF, issuing a communiqué in which the parties announced they had "reached common ground on resolving Zimbabwe's land crisis". In particular, the ANC supported the Zanu-PF demand that Britain should give financial aid for "land reform" without any conditions about violence, transparency or the rule of law. The meeting dispelled any lingering doubts that might have existed: the ANC was already committed to finding any Zimbabwean election that returned Mugabe to power to be free and fair.

The ANC party line impacted strongly on all those election observer groups under any degree of South African influence, notably the South African Parliamentary Observer Group and the observers sent by SADC, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Commonwealth. The first of these - dominated, naturally, by its ANC component - arrived two weeks before the election, though with the die already cast. "The ANC members of the delegation arrived with their minds made up", one delegation member told me. "They were all convinced that the MDC had very little support, that it would get five seats at most. Both the parties briefed us. The ANC responded warmly to the Zanu-PF briefing but after the MDC briefing they complained that they 'didn't want to hear any more MDC propaganda'. They got a bit uncomfortable when they saw what things were really like and the evidence of violence against the MDC was so overwhelming. But of course that wasn't going to alter their conclusions - they were following a party line. They didn't even bother to observe the election properly and just spent all their time at discos, receptions and nightclubs."

The ANC head of the delegation, Tony Yengeni (a leading member of the South African Communist Party) was in daily telephone contact with Mbeki throughout and flew back to Pretoria a few days before the election - in order, it was assumed, to report to Mbeki. He returned to Harare in time to see Zanu-PF scrape back to power by the narrowest of margins. The MDC not only trounced Zanu-PF in the towns and in Matabeleland, but even won a number of seats where their candidates had been in hiding, unable to campaign. The MDC immediately announced that it would challenge the result in over 40 of the 63 seats Zanu-PF had won, citing gross irregularities of every kind. This made no impact on Yengeni, who appeared hand-in-hand with Mugabe on television and loudly criticised western election observers for trying to import their values into Africa. Africans had their own distinctive style of elections and democracy, he declared, and only this was authentic and legitimate. Mugabe sat next to him wreathed in smiles throughout this performance. In effect, Yengeni was giving him Mbeki's thumbs-up.

After this, it was no surprise when the observer delegations from the South African parliament, SADC and the OAU all concluded that the election had been free and fair or, at least, acceptably so. The hardest battle was fought within the Commonwealth delegation, with the South African and other allied African delegates arguing fiercely for a free and fair verdict - to the horror of the Canadians, Australians, Indians and New Zealanders. In the end the latter prevailed sufficiently for the Commonwealth report on the election to be decently critical.

Mbeki then pushed a motion through the South African cabinet declaring that the Zimbabwean election had been "substantially free and fair" - though, of course, there had been no need for the cabinet to make any pronouncement at all on the matter. His unswerving support of Mugabe was the more striking not only because he appeared to have been double-crossed by Mugabe at Victoria Falls, but because he had sped around Europe and the Middle East trying to line up financial aid for Zimbabwean land reform. Ultimately he had succeeded in getting Saudi Arabia and Norway to pledge R100m to buy 118 white farms for redistribution. Immediately Mugabe announced that he wanted to take over all 4,000 white farms without paying for them at all, thus scuppering the deal.

Even such cavalier treatment seemed to make no difference to Mbeki's support, however. The election over, he flew to Harare with a large team of ministers and officials for talks on how best to help the Zimbabwean economy. The visit was, to say, the least, insensitive, for it fell on the day chosen by the opposition for a mass stayaway in protest at the government's refusal to uphold the rule of law. Supported by the unions and the farmers, the stayaway turned Harare into a ghost town and Mbeki's cavalcade rolled through deserted streets. Naturally enough, Mugabe read this as a calculated snub to the MDC and the visitors were met at the airport by his entire cabinet and ululating Zanu-PF activists singing revolutionary songs.

Once again the meeting saw Mugabe make a fool of Mbeki. Once again there was the same talk of large-scale South African aid and of Mbeki mediating with the IMF and other donors on Mugabe's behalf. Once again Mugabe made public promises of good behaviour, appearing on camera to promise that he would uphold the rule of law, that war vets who harassed farmers would be arrested and that all war vets would soon be made to leave the farms they had invaded. The next day, with Mbeki back in South Africa, Mugabe went on camera to insist that he had said nothing of the sort.

Undaunted, Mbeki, attending the UN Millennium Summit in New York in September, met with Kofi Annan, Mugabe and the presidents of Malawi and Namibia to try to broker UN and UK aid to Zimbabwe. He even prevailed on Tony Blair to attend a dinner with Mugabe. Once again everything broke down on Mugabe's refusal to concede transparency, an end to violence and the rule of law. The fact that Zimbabwe's economy was crumbling day by day made no difference to Mugabe who had, in effect, decided that to concede to international aid conditions meant losing power. Indeed, he showed a cavalier unconcern for economic constraints, bringing a delegation of 47 (including family members) to New York at enormous cost.

Mugabe moved on from the UN to Harlem where he held a large rally together with Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, Herman Ferguson of the New African Liberation Front and other such figures. Mugabe told the crowd what he thought of whites: "What we hate is not the colour of their skins but the evil that emanates from them." However, the relatives of a number of those tortured or murdered by Mugabe's thugs took this occasion to serve a writ on the president, seeking $400m in damages and accusing him of gross human rights abuses. Mugabe did not contest the case, which was heard before a Manhattan Court. Judgment was given against him, making it highly problematic for him to visit the US again.

None of this, nor indeed the food riots in Harare in October, nor Mugabe's continued campaign of violence and murder against the MDC and white farmers seemed to have any effect on Mbeki and his cabinet. After hearing Mugabe explain his land policies to a regional investment summit in Namibia in mid-October, deputy president Jacob Zuma said that he was convinced by Mugabe's argument that the land distribution programme would not affect commercial farming. "The delegates were quite appreciative of what he said and he did come across very well . . . I think he gave quite a reasonable explanation." But as soon as Reuters reported Zuma's remarks the Rand slumped to a record low against the dollar and currency traders had no doubt that his implied support for Mugabe's land grab was the cause. Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni issued a rapid statement explaining that Zuma had not in fact given approval for Zimbabwe's land policy - delegates at the summit had merely expressed their appreciation for Mugabe's briefing.

The next day Mbeki himself had to emphasise that South Africa would not allow land invasions and land reform would be carried out within the law. But for the dealers such assurances were too late. "Foreign investors are looking at South Africa in a very different light", said ABN AMRO economist Colen Garrow. "They don't want to put their money here. Zimbabwe is one of the problems." Zuma himself appeared genuinely shocked that his comments could have been "misconstrued" by the markets in that way.

By December, Mbeki was back in Harare with
President Obasanjo of Nigeria, trying to get the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to fund Zimbabwean "land reform". Once more Mbeki was pictured hand-in-hand with Mugabe - and once again the UNDP backed off because of Mugabe's refusal to accept conditions about the rule of law and a halt to violence. South Africa continued to supply Zimbabwe with the oil, electricity and credit lines without which Mugabe could not survive. In December, Eskom cut electricity prices to Zimbabwe by 25 per cent despite generally higher power charges due to the increased oil price and despite the fact that Zimbabwe was US $20m in arrears in paying Eskom's account. In addition a new $75m loan was extended to Zimbabwe to guarantee a basic minimum oil supply in the year ahead. There is no prospect that such a loan can be repaid. This non-economic behaviour can only be attributed to Mbeki's determination to keep Mugabe and Zanu-PF in power.

The Zimbabwean opposition enjoys widespread sympathy from Britain, the US and other Western countries, but none of these states wishes to offend Mbeki by adopting too forward a position over an issue in Mbeki's backyard. This gives Mugabe a free hand as he mobilises all his resources to crush the opposition before the presidential contest of March 2002. Mugabe, who will then be 78, is clearly determined to run again.

Why has Mbeki behaved like this? As with his denial of the link between HIV and Aids his support of Mugabe looks like a huge unforced error - for the result has been enormous political damage at home and abroad. Moreover, it has wrought great economic damage - the IMF warned in December that the crisis risked pulling down the whole southern African region. There is no doubt that had Mbeki taken a firm stand, insisting that human rights and the rule of law were basic to any African Renaissance, he would have earned enormous respect at home, in Africa and abroad and, in one bound, have stepped out of Mandela's giant shadow. Indeed, he could have simply cut off fuel and electricity and brought Mugabe down, making him a hero in Zimbabwe too.
If one talks to official sources one is told that Mbeki feels that he has little option but to support Mugabe. He provides the only viable government available; if he fell Zimbabwe could descend into tribal strife; and if the Zimbabwean economy collapses it will produce a vast flood of migrants into South Africa. None of this makes much sense. Anyone familiar with contemporary Zimbabwe knows that ethnic strife is now a very unlikely scenario: the opinion surveys carried out by the Helen Suzman Foundation over the past several years repeatedly probed this question and found nothing worth reporting. As for economic collapse, this is exactly what Mugabe himself is producing and the flood of migrants is already a reality as a result. Almost any alternative would be better.

One is also told that Mbeki, faced by radical opposition from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), is deeply aware that President Kaunda of Zambia was finally toppled by a trade union-based opposition. If Mugabe were to be defeated by the union-based MDC, this would enormously strengthen Cosatu's leverage and encourage it to float its own workers' party. There is probably something to this. But it should be remembered that the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and Cosatu were close allies. Both Cosatu and the Communist Party were warmly disposed towards Morgan Tsvangirai, who was the ZCTU leader before the MDC was launched. Had Mbeki embraced the MDC and opposed Mugabe at the outset he would have won plaudits from the South African left. Even now the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the SACP are uncomfortable at finding themselves, as a result of their alliance with the ANC, on the opposite side from persecuted farmworkers, organised urban labour and township food rioters in Zimbabwe.

The key to Mbeki's behaviour is to remember that South African policy towards Mugabe would be very different if Nelson Mandela was still president. In other words, there is nothing intrinsic in African nationalism that necessitates Mbeki's attitude: both men are ANC leaders. The central difference between the two men without doubt is that Mandela preached racial reconciliation within "the rainbow nation", while Mbeki preaches the doctrine of "the two nations, one rich and white and the other black and poor".

Over and over again Mbeki has played the race card against his domestic opposition, has insisted that South Africa's greatest problem is not Aids, poverty or unemployment - but racism. The strategy is clear: Mbeki is insecure in power and the "two nations" tactic isolates the opposition and makes any black who supports it a race traitor. Provided he can maintain racial solidarities and racial blocs, then the ANC is bound to win simply because Africans constitute 75 per cent of the electorate. Given that the ANC is failing badly and openly on its promises to provide "a better life for all", beating a retreat back to racial politics seems a safe recourse.

This in turn explains why Mbeki has not been discouraged even by Mugabe's multiple betrayals. For domestic reasons Mbeki has decided that he cannot be on the side of white farmers against a black liberation leader. However Mugabe behaves these domestic reasons do not change; for Mbeki has created a constituency within South Africa that would criticise him if he let Mugabe fail. The problem is not just that Mbeki has sacrificed the human rights tradition of the anti-apartheid struggle to support Mugabe, but that Mugabe must fail. He is 76, is leading his country to minus 10 per cent growth this year, is bankrupt, is execrated by world opinion and knows there is no way back. Mbeki is backing a certain loser.