THE new president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma was in town last week. He arrived in Harare to the warm embrace of his northern counterpart, President Mugabe.
An uncanny mixture of hopes, anxieties and expectations surrounded the much anticipated trip. But in the end, it was no more than a damp squib.
Critics of his substantive predecessor, President Mbeki, thought Zuma would adopt a different approach towards President Mugabe and Zimbabwe. They did not like Mbeki’s policy of ‘Quiet Diplomacy’. They hoped (and some expected) Zuma to be more vocal and perhaps tougher.
For my part, I feared that too much was expected of Umshini Wami, as he is affectionately known among his ardent followers. I wondered whether he was any better-placed and stronger-willed than Mbeki. By the time he left, it seems Zuma had become even quieter than Mbeki. What had Uncle Bob done or said to cause this man to apparently withdraw into his shell so soon?
So I read President Mugabe’s speech delivered at the dinner held in honour of Zuma’s visit. No doubt the speech was a crucial part of the menu. A closer look at the menu reveals the work of a master chef who carefully studies his guests and knows exactly how to bring them under his spell. So here we go. I have to quote Uncle’s words to place things into context, so it’s longer than usual.
After briefly referring to Zuma more formally as ‘Your Excellency’, it didn’t take long before President Mugabe found comfort in the old favourite, ‘Comrade President’. It has a revolutionary touch, a more cordial flavour, indeed a tone of affection. It is the language that communicates the message that you are one of us (tiri vanhu vamwe).
In case the Comrade President had failed to pick the hint, he was quickly reminded of the historical roots of comradeship: “You lived here when you fought for the independence of your country.” A timely reminder, too to the Comrade President of the enduring debt he owes his hosts.
If that wasn’t enough to refresh the Comrade President’s memory, it soon became abundantly clear: “Your presence among us, Comrade President, cements the strong bonds of the historic friendship and alliance that we forged in the trenches with the ANC when we fought the twin evils of settler colonialism and apartheid”.
And just in case the Comrade President may have suffered some kind of amnesia, a trip along Guilty Lane would surely do the trick and how better to do it than a reminder of the departed comrades? “As we speak, some of your gallant compatriots, whom you fought with and who perished at the hands of the enemy, lie buried here”. Yes, in Zimbabwe, the country that the enemy wants him to judge. Surely how can Comrade President be manipulated to do that?
This opening provided the perfect context in which to firmly drive home the point that whatever is happening in Zimbabwe was part of a grand historic mission. This gravitational pull of history is a central element of Zimbabwean politics.
The Comrade President was also reminded of the familial connections, “we are always proud and happy to receive our brothers and sisters from South Africa. We have become more than neighbours to each other”. It’s not lost on President Mugabe that the Comrade President has an abiding relationship with traditional culture. A brief lecture on the ancient Kingdom of Mapungubwe was therefore not out of place on this occasion.
Thus Comrade President was reminded, “We are bound together by common ancestry, geography, history, heritage and marriage. History tells us that we all at one point belonged to the Kingdom of Mapungubwe which existed between AD900-AD1300 and straddled modern-day South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe”.
But just in case the Comrade President didn’t get it how better to do it than to reiterate the connection between Mapungubwe and Zimbabwe: “To us, Mapungubwe is equally important, as we understand it is the forerunner to the Great Zimbabwe which we have adopted as our national monument and from which our country derives its name.”
If he was in any doubt, Comrade President Zuma would have known by then that the message is: we are one people. If US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had somehow managed to persuade the Comrade President that he was different, this mini-lecture would have brought him straight back into the fold; back to his roots. You are one of us Jacob, was the clear message, never forget that, son of Mapungubwe like all of us.
Land and Agriculture
It was hardly a coincidence that Zuma’s visit was tied in with the Harare Agricultural Show. This gave the proper context in which to remind the Comrade President of the most critical issue: Land. It was enough for the Comrade President to be reminded that this is part of the historic mission which consists of “far-reaching reforms which have transformed our agricultural sector”.
And if the Comrade President was too slow to appreciate the nature of these “far-reaching reforms” he was soon relieved of all doubt when it was spelt out more plainly that, “… the land reform programme, which is at the centre of this transformation, has enabled Government to redistribute the land which was monopolised by a small minority to the detriment of the larger majority of people, constituting the indigenous African people”.
And just in case the Comrade President intended to stand in judgment of these “far reaching reforms” it was important to remind him that far from being an uninterested bystander, he was in fact a key participant in this revolution. In fact, he had to be reminded that he was already an active participant: “I want to acknowledge with appreciation your government’s assistance with agricultural inputs worth R300 million, provided soon after the formation of the inclusive Government.”
In other words, Comrade President, you the son of Mapungubwe, like all of us, you are one of us and you are part of these reforms. Tiri tese mundima (We are together in the struggle), so you can’t stand in judgment.
In fact, to emphasise the similarity and scale of the challenges between the two countries, it became necessary to draw commonalities between Zimbabwe’s land reform program and South Africa’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program. So the Comrade President was reminded that: “Your Excellency, we are also aware that your government has taken a number of measures to empower the majority of the people of South Africa, who yesterday were denied full participation in the mainstream economy of the country of their birth. The Black Economic Empowerment is one such example.
To us, the Land Reform Programme was one such policy measure designed to empower the majority of the people”.
The message is plain: Comrade President, you and I are in the same boat. We are operating on the same wavelength. Hapana chandirikuita chausirikuitawo iwe (What I am doing is no different from what you have done and what you must do). In fact, if anything the Comrade President could learn a thing or two, “Our Government stands ready to share experiences with your Excellency’s government …”
The subtle message there is, Comrade President should hamusati matanga (you haven’t even started yet).
It’s the West, Comrade President!
In case the Comrade President’s mind has somewhat been poisoned by the many Westerners pushing him to be less brotherly, he had to be reminded of the primary problem in Zimbabwe. The Comrade President had to be told that the problem lies firmly at the door of the West and its “regime change” agenda.
In fact, the Comrade President should know that they (the West) “still maintain these illegal punitive measures in spite of the progress we have made as an inclusive Government. One is tempted to conclude … that regime change on the part of our detractors is still an active policy option”.
The message is simple: In other words, our battle, Comrade President is to resist regime change; an evil agenda that emanates from the West’s bitterness over our land reforms. I am not going anywhere to satisfy these regime change engineers.
Brother Mbeki was right
Furthermore, if the Comrade President somehow thought his predecessor was wrong in his handling of the Zimbabwe situation, it was necessary to put him on the right path. No better way to do it than to praise the sterling efforts of Brother Mbeki: “I take this opportunity, on behalf of the people and Government of Zimbabwe, to express sincere appreciation over the manner in which your government handled the stand-off between my Government and some Western governments.”
And just in case Comrade President was not sure who these Western governments are, he was promptly reminded in no uncertain terms: “Your government stood by us in the face of unjustified sanctions and vilification by Western governments, led by the British and the Americans.”
Just in case Comrade President had any doubts about the correctness of Mbeki’s approach, he was reminded that Mbeki was in fact supported by “other progressive and objective governments”. The implication here is that if the Comrade President has any intentions of doing things differently, then applying the law of opposites he risks being retrogressive, subjective and unprincipled.
The Comrade President was reminded that “former Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Montlanthe” had handled the “conflictual political situation in my country with great vision and foresight” (sic). In other words, do not be short-sighted Comrade President. Do just like Brother Mbeki did because contrary to what critics say, he handled the matter with “great vision and foresight”. Not only was he “instrumental”, he also showed “dedication and resilience” -- all qualities surely, that the Comrade President ought to emulate.
Inclusive Government – “Alive & Well”
The Comrade President needed to be reassured that the Inclusive Government was doing well. In fact, “the inclusive Government is alive and well”. However, knowing that the Comrade President has received information that there were some problems, an acknowledgment of challenges had to be made although merely characterising them as minor issues. Thus they were referred to dismissively as “teething problems”.
In other words, don’t worry Comrade President, these are very minor problems but they will fade away. That should be enough to set the Comrade President at ease.
Constitution & National Healing
In the same way, a quick word on the constitution was necessary to demonstrate ‘progress’. But one line was enough: “On the political scene, our constitution-making process is on course”. What ‘on course’ exactly means does not matter so long as Comrade President knows it’s on course.
And national healing also receives the same ‘by-the-way’ treatment,
“The Organ on National Healing has been launched …” Yes, that’s it. It has been launched. What it has done, will do, why, how, etc – doesn’t really matter, Comrade President. Isn’t it enough to know that it has been ‘launched’?!
SADC Support – Boys ngadzibhadhare (Please Pay Up)
There is also a message to other SADC leaders whose countries pledged to help an ailing brother but have not done so yet. This is done by way of paying gratitude for the Comrade President’s support: “Furthermore, within the auspices of Sadc, which you currently chair, a number of commitments were made by member states to help us resuscitate our economy.
In this vein, Comrade President, let me take this opportunity to thank you personally and your government for providing us with direct budget support and lines of credit for our industry”.
Note: the gratitude is to South Africa, not SADC – an indication perhaps that some of the boys have not paid up their pledges. There is a message here: dai matibatsirawo boys vasina kubhadhara ngavachibhadhara (please continue to help and can you please tell others to pay up?).
Handisi Ndega – I am not alone
Finally, Comrade President had to be reminded that Zimbabwe is not the only country with problems. So he was reminded that there other countries facing challenges, a subtle hint that there is no need to make Zimbabwe such a special case for attention. Hence the references to “developments in the DRC give us hope for lasting peace and security in that country. We welcome the co-operative spirit characterising relations among the countries around the Great Lakes region. We are also encouraged by the recent developments in Madagascar where the leaders have agreed to resolve their political differences through an inclusive dialogue process”.
He is saying, kune vamwewo vanotori nenhamo huru kudarika yedu saka musandimake (there are others in the region facing problems so don’t just focus on me).In fact, Madagascar is going through a similar process to Zimbabwe’s negotiated settlement and Brother Joachim (Chissano) has been doing as well there as Brother Mbeki did in Zimbabwe. If anything, the Comrade President is being reminded, this (negotiated settlement) looks like the way to go to solve problems in our region.
It is fair to say this mini-lecture must have come in handy for Comrade President Zuma. He was left in no doubt that, whatever he might have thought, he was no different at all and it was unwise for him to try to change things. The message was plain: we are one people, with a common history, a common agenda and common challenges. There is no need Comrade President, to worry about anything – the Inclusive Government is doing just fine. The minor problems will be resolved. There is absolutely no need to change course – what Brother Mbeki did was the best and you, too will not go wrong by adopting the same approach.
Result? By the time he departed for Pretoria, ‘Comrade President’ Zuma had reported that he was satisfied with the progress of the Inclusive Government. We’re told he did not even give a press conference. ‘Quiet Diplomacy’ had just got quieter, thanks to the special dish from the master chef, good old Uncle Bob!
Alex Magaisa is based at Kent Law School, the University of Kent, and can be contacted on e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org