Will Zuma get tough with Mugabe?

Expectations for a shift in the relationship between the two nations are high as the South African president makes his first official trip to Zimbabwe today.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Officially, South African President Jacob Zuma is going next door to Zimbabwe today to see some cattle.

But aside from being a featured guest at the Harare Agricultural Show, Mr. Zuma is expected to follow through on his campaign promises to get tougher with his northern neighbor President Robert Mugabe, and to patch together Mr. Mugabe's coalition government with his bitter rivals in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party.

While African National Congress (ANC) spokesmen insist that Zuma will be "tougher," that toughness will have its limits and won't go as far as the economic sanctions that the British and American governments employ. If there is any tough talking, it will occur behind closed doors, they say..

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"Zuma is not going over there to talk about cattle, there are people dying over there," says Jabulani Steven Mabona, a senior ANC member who is close to the president. "But if Zuma acted the way the media people wanted him to, it would only make things worse. The more you insult Mugabe, the more you make things difficult for everybody. You can't just say things that make a man not listen to you. We've got to persuade people to work together."

As holder of the rotating head position of the regional South African Development Community, and with South Africa a key trading partner and supplier of much of Zimbabwe's electricity, South Africa's Zuma certainly has influence to wield. But the new president, just elected in April, is slowly changing the way South Africa deals with foreign affairs, balancing the country's accustomed position as a moral voice for the world's developing nations on the global stage with a renewed focus on democracy and human rights among its neighbors.

No more 'softly, softly'

"The fact that Zuma is meeting with [opposition leaders Morgan] Tsvangirai and [Arthur] Mutumbara is something that his predecessor avoided, and there is a clear effort to be evenhanded in dealing with Zimbabwe," says Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, an initiative of Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg.

But while Zuma is expected to divert from the "softly, softly" style of his predecessor, former President Thabo Mbeki, toward Mugabe, Zuma will maintain much of the pragmatism of Mr. Mbeki's foreign policy. "Even if you held Mugabe to account," says Mr. Friedman, "you still have this small matter of about 150 military men who are behind him. Which brings us to this notion that one individual, Mugabe, is the problem and if you bring that individual to heel, democracy will return. That's nonsense."

MDC's list of gripes

Even so, expectations are high for this visit, Zuma's first since his election as president. This week, MDC leaders presented Zuma with a list of their own gripes with their coalition partners, Mugabe's long-ruling ZANU-PF party. Among these are demands for the removal of Mugabe's Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono, the man chiefly responsible for the mismanagement of Zimbabwe's money supply, which led to a staggering 230 million percent inflation rate.

MDC advocates also demand that Mugabe's police forces desist from arresting MDC parliamentarians, which they say is a bid to take back control of Parliament through attrition, and to drop criminal cases against top MDC leaders, such as Deputy Agriculture Minister Roy Bennett.

At a press conference with foreign correspondents, ANC spokesman Gwede Mantashe fed rumors that Zuma would be "more vocal in terms of what we see as deviant behavior by our neighbors." But Mugabe's spokesman, George Charamba, insists the Zuma visit will just be about agriculture. Rumors that Zuma would get tough with ZANU-PF were just a fiction created by "foreign media houses," he said.

As distasteful as Mugabe's behavior may be to the new leadership of the ANC, Mr. Mabona says that leaders like Zuma believe the only solution is to do what the ANC itself did in the final days of apartheid.

"We were the most abused people in the continent, governed by a so-called legitimate apartheid government," says Mabona, "but we had to sit down with them, accommodate them, so we can show them that we are not like them."

To read more on how Mugabe is using the police to harass MDC politicians, click here.

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