Basildon Peta: Why Mbeki's gamble on diplomacy will fail

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The Independent Online

President Robert Mugabe's fraudulent election victory has once again thrust South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, uncomfortably into the international spotlight.

Zimbabwe's position as a near-satellite economy of South Africa leaves Mbeki as the only leader who can effectively tighten the screws on Mugabe, and make Zimbabwe ungovernable unless he embraces democracy and good governance.

Ever since the crisis in Zimbabwe erupted two years ago, Mbeki has been called upon to condemn his neighbour publicly, but the South African leader has refused to budge from his policy of quiet diplomacy. Even the greatest optimist now has to agree, however, that this approach has completely failed.

Now, as the South African president prepares to meet the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, and Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo in London on Tuesday to decide what action to take against Zimbabwe in the wake of the stolen election, there is no doubt that Mbeki's reputation will be as much on the line as that of the Commonwealth.

Will he, for the umpteenth time, try to stave off tough Commonwealth action against Mugabe? If so, what will this do to Mbeki's, and the Commonwealth's, already tattered reputations?

Mbeki knows that Mugabe stole the election. His government yesterday scrambled to distance itself from Mugabe's "victory" as Western governments sent a clear message that if he endorsed the election, Mbeki's brainchild, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), would be in jeopardy.

On Friday, South Africa's ruling ANC distributed an electronic newsletter, signed by Mbeki, which gave the election a clean bill of health. And his deputy, Jacob Zuma, reportedly endorsed Mugabe's victory in Harare on Thursday. Both actions caused deep dismay in the Commonwealth and in industrialised countries whose material support is vital for the success of Nepad: yesterday the ANC and the South African government retracted or denied the statements attributed to the president and his deputy.

But Mbeki has not quite given up. He travels to Zimbabwe tomorrow to meet Mugabe and the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. He still hopes to coax the two into agreeing to a government of national unity, which could be used to defer any tough action when the Commonwealth troika meets the next day.

If this happens, Mbeki will not only see Nepad evaporate, he can expect to lose a big chunk of his reputation as "the leader of Africa". A government of national unity under Mugabe is unworkable. Both sides have dismissed the idea, and even if Mugabe agreed, he has a history of reneging on such promises.

There is only one way out for Mbeki and the Commonwealth on Tuesday. That is to demand a re-run of the presidential election after all the pre-requisites of a free and fair poll have been put in place. A workable national unity government can only be a product of a legitimate election.