The weekend ouster of Thabo Mbeki as South Africa;s leaders has raised questions whether he would continue his mediation in Zimbabwe – and perhaps other African conflicts – after his resignation.
This seems to make sense as he has devoted a great deal of his presidency to continental peace-making.
There are many precedents for former presidents to become peace mediators; Nelson Mandela mediated in Burundi.
But Zimbabwean political analyst Takura Zhangazha says if Mbeki does continue his Zimbabwe mediation, he would be weakened by the lack of authority of the presidency.
At first glance that also sounds plausible. But, on closer inspection, what emerges as perhaps the greatest flaw in Mbeki’s peace-making efforts is that he did not really use the authority of his position in these endeavours.
Political analysts said while SADC was likely to keep Mbeki as mediator in Zimbabwe, his standing would now be significantly weakened.
“He is significantly weaker now without the presidency and this will be tested if he is asked to resolve the deadlock over the allocation of ministries,” Eldred Masunungure, a leading political commentator said.
Except perhaps in the wrong way. In the case of Zimbabwe, Mbeki’s challenge – to most observers – seemed to remove his dead hand from the power control. But Mbeki, ever the dissident thinker, seemed instead to construe his role as putting the brakes on change.
He humoured, cajoled, flattered and sometimes perhaps tried to bribe Mugabe to loosen the reigns of power.
Never, it seems, did Mbeki apply pressure or invoke the relatively gigantic state he commanded to put the squeeze on Mugabe.
And so – as far as could be discerned in a very opaque negotiating processes – Mugabe mostly just accepted the flattery and did what he wanted to do anyway.
The closest Mbeki came to utilising the considerable state power at his disposal appeared to be when he offered Mugabe R1-billion to kickstart the Zimbabwean economy, on condition Mugabe introduced sensible political and economic policies. Mugabe declined and went elsewhere for the money.
Mbeki’s people argued that he had no real choice; that Mugabe was in power and only persuasion could make him surrender any of it.
But that argument was undermined by a growing suspicion that Mbeki’s approach flowed from a vastly different perception of the problem.
Where others looked at Zimbabwe and saw a brutal dictator persecuting a helpless opposition, Mbeki seemed to see a weak African leader threatened by menacing Western powers, using, among other weapons, the opposition as a proxy.
So where Mbeki used his presidential powers at all, it was to protect Mugabe, not only from his international critics at the UN and elsewhere, but increasingly even from other southern African leaders.
Perhaps it would be a good idea for the Zuma people to appoint their own Zimbabwe mediator to take a fresh look at the problem.
And that he used considerable power of the South African state to ensure that Mugabe – still trying to hang on to all powerful cabinet portfolios despite signing a power-sharing deal last week – really does loosen his iron grip on power.