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23 March 2018 22:19 (South Africa)

Zuma sacrifices top aide in yet another Zimbabwe capitulation

  • Simon Allison
    Simon Allison

    Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.

  • Africa

This weekend, President Zuma threw one of his top advisers under a bus (one with Zanu-PF branding and Robert Mugabe’s shiny mug on the side). Lindiwe Zulu hadn’t done much wrong in noting that maybe, just maybe, Zimbabwe’s election progress was less than perfect. Still, this was too much for Mugabe – and when Comrade Bob says jump, Zuma still asks how high. By SIMON ALLISON.

Late Sunday afternoon, every journalist in South Africa with a passing interest in foreign affairs received an email from the department of international relations. In it was an unusually stern statement from Mac Maharaj, on behalf of the Presidency. “The Presidency has noted with great concern, recent unfortunate statements made on the situation in Zimbabwe, which have been attributed to a member of the technical team supporting the Facilitator, President Jacob Zuma…A number of statements have been made during the facilitation process which have been unauthorised and which are regrettable and unfortunate. Some of the utterances have also been inaccurate.”

Although she wasn’t mentioned by name, the presidential dressing-down was unmistakably directed at just one person – and she really didn’t deserve it.

Poor Lindiwe Zulu. She is Jacob Zuma’s main international relations adviser, and one third of his technical team on Zimbabwe which also includes Mac Maharaj and Charles Nqakula. But it is Zulu has been doing most of the hard yards on South Africa’s mediation efforts in Zimbabwe. In this capacity, I’ve spoken with her many times, and she’s always struck me as sensible and level-headed; someone trying to do her best while working under exceptionally tight constraints. I’ve always imagined that were she allowed to speak freely, her and I would agree more than we disagreed about how South Africa should approach our northern neighbor.

On Thursday, however, her diplomatic mask slipped for the briefest of moments – instantly earning her a very public humiliation from two of the most powerful men in southern Africa.

Speaking to Reuters ahead of a meeting, Zulu noted that “things on the ground are not looking good” in Zimbabwe, referencing the procedural issues which have plagued early voting. This is hardly controversial: 40,000 of 69,000 early voters were unable to cast their ballot due to a wide variety of problems including long lines at polling stations and a shortage of ballot papers, which is not exactly an encouraging omen for the election to come (still scheduled for 31 July, despite strong reservations expressed previously by SADC).

Zulu also claimed that Jacob Zuma had personally telephoned Robert Mugabe to raise his concerns – and to tell Mugabe that he was not pleased with the run-up to the poll. It must be noted that in his statement on Zulu, Maharaj specifically denies that this phone call took place. It would be a pity if it didn’t: a phone call sounds like an eminently sensible thing do to, and it’s nice to think of Zuma taking some initiative on Zimbabwe. For a change.

Either way, Robert Mugabe wasn’t happy. Zulu has attracted Mugabe’s ire before, remember – as he launched his election campaign earlier this month, he urged Zuma to silence his “stupid and idiotic street woman”. Zuma did not oblige on that occasion. So Mugabe tried again:

That persistent negative voice from South Africa, could it be stopped?” asked Mugabe, speaking to thousands of supporters in Matabeleland. “I appeal to President Zuma to stop this woman of theirs from speaking on Zimbabwe.”

This call was taken up by Mugabe’s attack dogs, including outspoken Zanu-PF politburo member Jonathan Moyo, who described Zulu as an opposition sympathizer, and said her involvement risked undermining the entire SADC mediation effort. This was a threat. “If they keep playing games then irrelevance shall come sooner than they imagine. It is undiplomatic for communication between Heads of States to be peddled in the newspapers,” he said.

Zuma’s response to all this was unusually quick – but not at all out of character. By Sunday afternoon, Zulu had been publicly shamed and her comments disavowed.

There is an argument to be made in Zuma’s defence. The president’s relationship with Mugabe may be strained (in his statement, Maharaj made a telling Freudian slip, reiterating South Africa’s commitment to “the warm historical relations” with Zimbabwe, in the absence of this existing currently), but Zuma is the foreign leader who retains the most influence in Zimbabwe and is the most likely to broker some kind of deal if the elections go horribly wrong, again. This relies, however, on keeping Mugabe on board, something which looked impossible without clearly distancing himself from Zulu’s remarks. For South Africa and SADC’s continued involvement, Zulu was a necessary sacrifice. The question must be asked, however: how much further can Mugabe push SADC until there is any real resistance? And, perhaps more importantly, what does SADC want from its engagement in Zimbabwe: genuine political reform and a representative government, or a continuation of the status quo and elections that can be passed off as “credible”?

Even better, for Mugabe, is that all the fuss over that “idiotic street woman” has created a huge distraction from the real issue – which, as Zulu pointed out, is that Zimbabwe’s election preparations really are a mess. There was a mini SADC summit this weekend to discuss exactly that, with presidents Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and Armando Guebuza of Mozambique joining Zuma in Pretoria (during which time, it seems, the decision to act against Zulu was reached. It’s unclear whether she was invited to the summit).

Publicly, at least, SADC is not as worried as perhaps they should be. While the final communiqué from the summit noted “problems” during the early voting, it went on to praise Zimbabwe’s government, political parties and leaders for “commendable efforts which will help realise credible elections”. This echoes an African Union assessment released on Friday, in which the AU says it believes that it is possible to have free and fair elections in Zimbabwe, even if it cannot guarantee “the most perfect or optimum of situations”.

Also out on Saturday – and ignored publicly by SADC – was a devastating report in the Daily Mail which creates a somewhat different impression. “Proof Mugabe buys elections: Astonishing documents show evidence of 'neutralising' of voters, millions paid for systematic rigging and smuggling of blood diamonds - to ensure tyrant, 89, clings to power,” ran the typically sensational headline. I’m normally weary of sensational headlines in the Daily Mail (especially after last month’s classic: “Mandela's passing and the looming threat of a race war against South Africa's whites”), but this piece was written by veteran Africa correspondent Ian Birrell, formerly of the much more respectable Independent, so can’t be dismissed that easily.

Birrell claims to have seen top-secret intelligence documents which outline how Zanu-PF is paying an Israeli company to manipulate the outcome of the vote; and financing militia groups to repeat 2008’s post-election violence if Mugabe does not win outright. The funding for all this comes, apparently, from the Chinese government and from two African leaders: the continent’s longest-serving dictator, Teodoro Obiang in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, and Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo (recently confirmed in his own dodgy elections).

These are very serious allegations which, if true, mean that these elections are already fixed, and the whole process is a sham designed to legitimize Zanu-PF’s rule. It would be nice if SADC roused itself to address the allegations, although this seems unlikely, given their love of non-confrontation (except when it comes to defenceless presidential advisors). Of course, most interesting of all would be Lindiwe Zulu’s take – but we might not be hearing from her on Zimbabwe for a long time to come. DM

Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma (L) walks with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe at Harare International airport, March 16, 2010. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

  • Simon Allison
    Simon Allison

    Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.

  • Africa

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