Zimbabwe-Is liberation blood thicker than democratic water? In his biography, At the Deep End, Zimbabwean prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai tells how he was “stunned” by South African president Thabo Mbeki’s part in a “conspiracy” to divide and weaken the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
It is also now a footnote in history that when Julius Malema, then president of the African National Congress youth league, turfed a BBC journalist out of a press conference, he had been extolling the virtues of Robert Mugabe and mocking the “Mickey Mouse” opposition for using air-conditioned offices.
Such incidents illustrate how many in the ANC still see Mugabe as a brother in Africa’s liberation struggle while dismissing the MDC as a Johnny-come-lately conjured up by western imperialists. Mbeki’s successor, Jacob Zuma, is however broadly seen as less sympathetic to Mugabe and more neutral in his mediation efforts ahead of elections expected next year.
Sitting down with Zuma at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, I put to him bluntly: what went wrong in Zimbabwe? He demurrs: “I avoid being judgmental to other people.”
Many have described Mugabe as a dictator, but Zuma pointedly avoids the word. “I wouldn’t because in Zimbabwe Zanu-PF holds its conferences, they elect Mugabe; I don’t look at how that happened. They regularly hold elections and that’s why you could say these elections did not go very well. What else do you need? People do things in different places in different ways.
“If you are telling me there have never been elections in Zimbabwe, either in the ruling party or the general election, it would be a different story. How Zimbabweans are influenced in one or the other is a different matter.”
Malema, who has visited Mugabe like an apprentice to a master, reportedly claimed that Zuma “hates” Africa’s oldest leader. Zuma denies this, saying of their personal relationship: “It’s good. We were freedom fighters together, we know each other from way back. So I’ve known him for a long time.”
Does that mean Mugabe receives preferential treatment? “Not necessarily. I deal with issues as they come as an ANC and as an individual. What we need in Zimbabwe is to ensure that Zimbabwe is democratic, that’s why we talk to all of them, let the Zimbabwean people decide which party leads them. We can’t interfere.”
And what of this notion that the MDC is a stooge of British and American interests? “We don’t say that in the ANC. Much as it is true that we come from the liberation movement with Mugabe, but that to us does not give anyone a licence to mishandle his country, so if at all there was mishandling of the country we’d be critical.
“We don’t say because a person has come from not a liberation movement, they cannot be democratic. What determines everything is how people run their affairs in their own countries. We are not going to prefer them in terms of their history, but we are going to prefer them in terms of what they do. However, the history will remain the history: the fact that I was a freedom fighter together with Mugabe is a fact we cannot erase. We must judge what people do at a given time.”