Africa’s Journal

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Zuma Supports Idea of Unity Government in Zimbabwe

Posted by africasjournal on April 23, 2008

LONDON — One of South Africa’s most senior political leaders lent support Wednesday to the idea of forming a national unity government in Zimbabwe to resolve its deepening crisis.

The politician, Jacob G. Zuma, the head of the ruling African National Congress and potentially a future president of South Africa, said both the United States and Britain had undermined their own ability to play a role in the Zimbabwe political crisis because of the vehemence of their criticism of the government.

Mr. Zuma was speaking in an interview here shortly before Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain urged the imposition of an arms embargo on Zimbabwe. In the interview, Mr. Zuma warned against any “forceful intervention” in Zimbabwe’s crisis.

Mr. Zuma was asked to comment on an article in Zimbabwe’s state-owned Herald newspaper on Wednesday proposing a government of national unity grouping President Robert G. Mugabe and his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai, but led by Mr. Mugabe.

The two bitter adversaries fought presidential and parliamentary elections on March 29 but the outcome of the presidential vote has not been announced while Mr. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF has challenged the results of 23 constituencies in the parliamentary ballot, which Mr. Tsvangirai initially seemed to have won.

The stalemate appears to have spilled into increasing bloodshed with widespread claims by opposition and church figures that Mr. Mugabe’s followers have begun beating and killing opposition supporters in advance of a mooted run-off in the presidential vote.

Mr. Zuma is visiting several European countries and has spoken out frequently in favor of renewed intervention by southern African leaders to restart some form of dialogue between Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai.

His readiness to comment has been taken by some analysts as a departure from South Africa’s previous “quiet diplomacy” followed by South African President Thabo Mbeki, which seemed to favor Mr. Mugabe and shield his oppressive regime from criticism.

But Mr. Zuma denied that “quiet diplomacy” had failed, saying South Africa had decided “not to stand on rooftops and criticize Mugabe” in order to be able to talk to both sides in the dispute. “Quiet diplomacy has not failed,” he said. “Zimbabwe is our neighbor. We need to engage Zimbabweans on both sides. It would not have been prudent for us to stand there and criticize them. How could we have engaged with both sides if we did so?”

He added: “We decided to engage Zimbabweans quietly and it was dubbed quiet diplomacy. We can produce a better report than anyone else on what happened.”

Asked if the idea of a national unity government in Zimbabwe was premature, Mr. Zuma said: “I don’t think it is premature because you are dealing with a situation where we are almost three weeks after the election and there has been no announcement of the results.” Regional diplomacy had not resolved the crisis, he said, “so we have to say what do we do?”

“The natural thing is that there should be discussions,” he said. The call for a unity government “is not premature, it is actually appropriate at this time,” he said.

Mr. Zuma said the presidential election appeared to have produced a very narrow margin between Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai, meaning that both men commanded significant support among Zimbabweans.

But he was keen to avoid the impression that he was initiating the call for a unity government, which was a model used to resolve Kenya’s bloodstained post-election crisis earlier this year.

“I’m not necessarily making a call,” he said. “This is what should be looked at as one option.”

He was speaking shortly before a scheduled meeting with Mr. Brown, the British Prime Minister, who has accused Mr. Mugabe of stealing the Zimbabwean election.

Mr. Zuma said: “The unfortunate thing for Britain was the extreme position Britain took in relation to Zimbabwe. It then became difficult for Britain to play any role without people being suspicious.”

The British attitude, he said, “in a sense undermined the role it could play in Zimbabwe” and the United States authorities “also took the same position as Britain.”

“I’m not saying they are disqualified” from influencing events in Zimbabwe, Mr. Zuma continued, but “their action undermined the possibility of their playing a meaningful role in Zimbabwe.”

The interview with Mr. Zuma took place before Mr. Brown, the British prime minister, speaking in Parliament, referred to the saga of a Chinese vessel carrying an arms shipment bound for Zimbabwe, which South African port workers in Durban refused to unload.

“Because of what has happened in South Africa, where there is an arms shipment trying to get to Zimbabwe, we will promote proposals for an embargo on all arms to Zimbabwe,” Mr. Brown said, without giving further details.

In the interview, however, Mr. Zuma declined to characterize the actions of the South African port workers in Durban as a form of sanction and said it had been inspired by a sentiment among them that, if they unloaded the arms bound for Zimbabwe, they would exacerbate the crisis there.

“There is a situation in Zimbabwe which is not like a normal situation,” Mr. Zuma said. “If the situation was normal, the arms trade is a normal thing.” But he spoke out firmly against South African military action against Zimbabwe.

“I don’t think Mbeki must apply force in Zimbabwe,” he said. “This is what countries in the world are urging South Africa to do and it is wrong. I don’t think if you are a stronger country you must then use force. Negotiations and persuasions is a necessary thing to do rather than use force.”

“All that we should do from the outside is to help what the Zimbabweans do,” he said.

He took issue, however, with the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, blaming it for the delays in publicizing the results of the March 29 election.

Mr. Zuma said: “The Electoral Commission has discredited the elections. It ought to remain as an independent body. By the manner in which it has operated, it has caused a lot of doubt in its independence.”

“It has not explained why it is not releasing the results,” he said.

He also suggested a role in mediating the Zimbabwe crisis for African elder statesmen such as former President Sam Nujoma of Namibia, former President Joaquin A. Chissano of Mozambique and others from Botswana and Tanzania.

And he acknowledged that Zimbabwe’s economic plight, which has forced hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans to flee across the razor wire frontier fence to South Africa, betokened a political failure.

“We need to govern a country in such a way as it does not lead people to cross under the barbed wire,” he said. “Once that happens it means politically things have gone wrong and we have got to correct them.”

Mr. Zuma is widely tipped to succeed Mr. Mbeki as South Africa’s leader if he is acquitted on corruption charges at a trial later this year. Asked if he believed the trial would exonerate him, he said: “Absolutely, I am innocent.”


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