President Robert Mugabe's enforcers had begun to rampage across Zimbabwe, beating his political opponents, when television cameras captured...

Share story

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — President Robert Mugabe’s enforcers had begun to rampage across Zimbabwe, beating his political opponents, when television cameras captured Mugabe holding hands with the smiling South African president, Thabo Mbeki, a professed champion of African democracy.

It was April 2000, and Mbeki spoke no evil of Mugabe’s repressive ways.

Eight years later, in April 2008, much the same scene repeated itself. For two weeks, Zimbabwean election officials had refused to release the results of an election Mugabe had lost, and a new wave of violence was beginning. Again, the despot and the democrat genially clasped hands as Mbeki, 66, said there was no political crisis in Zimbabwe.

The relationship between these two men, stretching back almost 30 years, is crucial to fathoming why Mbeki, picked last year by regional leaders to officially mediate Zimbabwe’s conflict, does not publicly criticize Mugabe, 84, nor use South Africa’s unique economic and political leverage as the dominant nation in the region to curb his ruthless methods.

The world’s puzzlement with Mbeki’s approach — walking softly, carrying no stick — has turned into frustration as state-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe has grown so sweeping that the opposition’s presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, who outpolled Mugabe in the first round, quit the race five days before Friday’s runoff.

Mbeki is widely regarded as an essential player in preventing an implosion in Zimbabwe that could suck the whole of southern Africa into a humanitarian morass. His “quiet diplomacy” is built on the conviction that his own special bond with Mugabe could resolve the Zimbabwe crisis through patient negotiations, his colleagues and chroniclers said.

His consistency is variously attributed to a hubristic resistance to admitting failure, a deep suspicion about Western interference in African affairs, a hard-nosed calculation of political interests and a realistic assessment of the limits of South Africa’s power.

Growing isolation

In recent days, Mbeki found himself isolated — and attacked, directly or indirectly, by everyone from Barack Obama to a growing chorus of African allies — as he pressed ahead with his quiet diplomacy, even as Mugabe’s henchmen thrashed opposition voters with iron clubs in news photos.

For years, South Africa has sought to block international action against Mugabe’s government and as recently as June 19 refused to join a U.S. effort at the United Nations to condemn the political attacks in Zimbabwe. Only after the clamor against Mugabe grew deafening did South Africa agree Monday to support the Security Council’s condemnation of the “campaign of violence” afflicting the nation.

With Zimbabwe’s economy in ruins and millions of its people having fled to South Africa and other nations, quiet diplomacy is widely regarded as a blot on the legacy of the region’s leading politician, who stepped into Nelson Mandela’s shoes in 1999. It also stands in contrast to the much more critical stance of many African leaders, past and present, including Mandela, who on Tuesday cited a “tragic failure of leadership” in Zimbabwe. On Wednesday, Queen Elizabeth stripped Mugabe of his ceremonial knighthood, which dated from 1994.

South African officials said Mbeki’s mediation led to a relatively fair election in the first round of voting in March, with tallies posted at polling stations, a plurality of votes for Tsvangirai and a majority in Parliament for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

“His approach has produced results,” said Themba Maseko, South African government spokesman.

Mark Gevisser, who wrote a biography of Mbeki, offered the prevailing view of the president’s Zimbabwe policy: “It’s his great diplomatic failure. And it’s all the more significant because of the incredibly high bar he set for African democracy.”

“A troublesome father”

Mbeki struck up a friendship with Mugabe in 1980, soon after the Zimbabwean came to power, according to Gevisser. Over time, he developed a filial relationship to the elder leader. “Mugabe is the father, but not a beloved father, a troublesome one, the kind the son wishes would just listen to him once in a while,” Gevisser said.

Gevisser and others said Mbeki felt a kinship with the hero of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle against white-supremacist rule. “He thinks he is the only one who can talk to Mugabe, and the only way to get Mugabe out is quietly and through his acquiescence,” he said.

Mbeki’s younger brother, Moeletsi, 62, said the alliance between the two men springs more from a political than a personal affinity: Mugabe and Mbeki view the trade-union movement as a common threat.

Tsvangirai is a former trade-union leader. And Thabo Mbeki, whose fiscally conservative economic policies alienated the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions, lost the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) last year to Jacob Zuma, who had the unions’ backing.

Thabo Mbeki and Mugabe are British-educated politicians who believe they were trained to govern, Moeletsi Mbeki said, arguing that Mugabe sees Tsvangirai, who never attended college, as “the riffraff.”

“It’s a class thing,” he said. “The same with my brother: master’s from Sussex.”

Some who have long known Mbeki find the trade-union explanation unconvincing, saying his approach to Zimbabwe grows instead from a belief in African solutions to African problems and to acting only with unanimity among the nations of southern Africa.

George Bizos, Mandela’s lawyer and one of his oldest friends, visited Mbeki when Bizos was defending Tsvangirai in 2003 and 2004 against treason charges.

At the time, critics of Mbeki contended that South Africa’s president could quickly topple Mugabe by blocking landlocked Zimbabwe from accessing South African ports or by cutting off its electricity, among other steps, but the president found these options unappealing.

“He said, ‘I can’t cut the electricity because the grid goes to other countries,’ ” Bizos recalled. ” ‘I can’t shut the frontier gates because we require passage to countries northeast and northwest of us through Zimbabwe.

” ‘Please tell me what to do.’ ”

While Bizos said quiet diplomacy had failed, he was unconvinced anything else would have worked. “You can’t put meaningful pressure on a person who’s an egomaniac, who doesn’t care about his people and only cares about staying in power,” he said.

Material from the Chicago Tribune is included in this report.