Under normal circumstances a mediator in a crisis is chosen because of his fairness, closeness to the people he should be bringing together and the respect he commands among the protagonists.
Mutual respect is essential between the mediator and those he is dealing with because, as negotiations progress, there will be need to trust the mediator.
Such are the qualities of an effective negotiator; such are the qualities that former South African president Thabo Mbeki lacks.
And the absence of these qualities has caused the two camps he is mediating between to move further apart than they actually were before the negotiations started.
Mbeki has no history in mediation and his only other prominent mediation role was when he mediated between the Ivorian rebels, who were holding the north of the country, and the Ivorian government, holding the southern part of the country.
In this particular effort, Mbeki showed what was to become his trademark weakness of supporting one side over the other during mediation assignments.
His poor performance saw antagonism between the two warring groups increasing, prompting Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade to question the legitimacy of Mbeki’s individual mediation and involvement efforts in C├┤te d┬┤ivoire.
“You know,” Wade told Radio France, “I have never thought much of Mbeki’s mediation efforts, even though he is a head of state as I am.”
Mbeki had been mandated as a mediator by the African Union but soon it was found out that he had a personal friendship with Laurent Gbagbo, the Ivory Coast president.
With the war actually escalating, the rebels rejected Mbeki, accusing him of being partial in farvour of Gbagbo.
Mbeki was later fired from the mediation role and it did not take long for the Ivorians to find common ground culminating in a historic settlement that saw rebel leader, Guillaume Soro, become Gbagbo’s Prime Minister and sworn into office on April 4, 2007.
Since taking office in June 14, 1999, Mbeki has had ample time to deal with the Zimbabwean situation which was already turning bad.
But Mbeki’s friendship and apparent admiration of Robert Mugabe made him stand away and never, to this day, criticize Mugabe over anything that is going on in that country.
The decision to “appoint” Mbeki as mediator was not taken deliberately by SADC; it just happened, maybe in reverence to South Africa’s strong economic, cultural and political ties to Zimbabwe.
But just as in the Ivory Coast, Mbeki’s friendship with Mugabe prevented him from playing a real role of mediator.
It didn’t take long for his own South African parliamentarians to start accusing Mbeki of farvouritism and “showing leniency” towards Mugabe.
“When you mediate, you don’t take sides,” admonished Weshotsile Seremane, then spokesman on African Affairs for the opposition Democratic Alliance. “You try to equalize the situation. You ask all parties that they must not be violent against each other. But in this case when you tell the victims that they must not be violent, and at the same time they must change their opinion in terms of whether they regard the unfair election that were not free as fraudulent, it is being unfair.”
Even in the face of such obvious bias, the Movement for Democratic Change, especially its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, showed a lot of patience with Mbeki.
But for the past few months, the MDC had started grumbling louder and louder, accusing Mbeki of shielding Mugabe.
SADC, for its part, pretended not to hear Tsvangirai and the MDC and kept on passing decisions that strengthened a biased mediator’s hand.
While Mbeki was busy protecting Mugabe, SADC was also busy protecting Mbeki.
And by early last week, Tsvangirai and his group had had enough and called SADC leaders “cowards” for failing to stand up to Mugabe.
Tsvangirai directly demanded that Mbeki step down as mediator in Zimbabwe’s political crisis.
“He does not appear to understand how desperate the problem in Zimbabwe is, and the solutions he proposes are too small,” Tsvangirai said in a statement issued as Mbeki chaired a new round of mediation talks, which have since collapsed. “He is not serving to bring the parties together because he does not understand what needs to be done.”
Further, Tsvangirai said that he had written to SADC Chairman, South African President Kgalema Motlanthe “detailing the irretrievable state of our relationship with Mr Mbeki and asking that he recuse himself”.
“His partisan support of Zanu-PF, to the detriment of genuine dialogue, has made it impossible for the MDC to continue negotiating under his facilitation,” Tsvangirai said.
Frustrated and well aware of his failure in mediation, Mbeki dropped whatever little pretense of diplomacy he had and responded to Tsvangirai in a surprisingly bad-tempered 4087-word ‘Dear Morgan’ letter, which he copied to the other Zimbabwe negotiating parties, the chairperson and acting chairperson of the SADC Organ on Politics etc; the chairperson of SADC; the chairperson of the AU; the chairperson of the AU Commission; the secretary general of the United Nations; and to the executive secretary of SADC.
In a desperate effort in retaliation, Mbeki even resorted to Mugabe’s pronouncements of insulting Tsvangirai as a stooge of the western countries. In this regard, he wrote, (there is) “absolutely no need to refer to (your) external supporters for approval, however powerful they might seem…”
“It may be that, for whatever reason, you consider our region and
continent as being of little consequence to the future of Zimbabwe,
believing that others further away, in Western Europe and North
America, are of greater importance,” Mbeki fumed. “Realistically, Zimbabwe will never share the same neighbourhood with the countries of Western Europe and North America, and therefore secure its success on the basis of friendship with these, and contempt for the decisions of its immediate African neighbours.”
ZimOnline expressed concern about the tone and thrust of the letter which “seems over the top coming from one in Mbeki’s position where as mediator he is expected to be impartial and moderate in his conduct”.
For its part, the MDC is adamant Mbeki ought to step down from the mediation role, stressing that he is too protective of Mugabe at the expense of honest dialogue to move things forward.
Mbeki’s lengthy outburst was also triggered by a 309-word letter from MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti who had called SADC’s resolution a “nullity”.
“Given the fact that the SADC resolution is a nullity and has not been
rescinded,” wrote Biti to Mbeki, “it is then difficult for any of the parties to move in any direction for fear of legitimising the SADC Summit “ruling”.
However, the battle lines are drawn and the MDC does not appear interested in any more talks chaired by Mbeki.
The MDC announced that the talks had broken down and Tsvangirai went to the airport to fly to Morocco to receive an award for fighting for democracy. However, at the airport, immigration officials refused him exit saying that his travel document was expired. The MDC believes Mbeki was behind their leader’s humiliation at OR Tambo Airport.
Reports say that Tsvangirai, instead, drove to Botswana from where he is said to have flown out to Morocco.
It does not appear as if a good working relationship can be salvaged and it remains to be seen what the MDC would do if SADC keeps imposing Mbeki to mediate.
But it’s not too late for Mbeki to take a course in mediation practice.