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Connection to Mugabe Threatens South African President's Legacy

South African President Thabo Mbeki, left, who decades ago forged ties between the exiled African National Congress and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, right, has so far failed in his bid to ease the longtime leader into retirement.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, who decades ago forged ties between the exiled African National Congress and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, has so far failed in his bid to ease the longtime leader into retirement. (By Mark Wessels -- Associated Press)
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Mbeki long has enjoyed closer relations with other, more-polished opposition leaders in Zimbabwe, including Tsvangirai's rival, Welshman Ncube, a law professor.

In the just-finished election season, South African support was seen as crucial to the emergence of independent candidate Simba Makoni, Mugabe's former finance minister, who broke from the ruling party to run for president. Tsvangirai was able to maintain his position as Zimbabwe's dominant opposition leader -- Makoni ended up with only 8 percent of the vote -- but relations with Mbeki deteriorated further.

Mbeki "respects Mugabe," said Tendai Biti, secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change, Tsvangirai's party. "He's personally indebted to Mugabe because he looked after him during the struggle" against apartheid.

"Whatever exists between Mbeki and Mugabe doesn't exist between Mbeki and Tsvangirai," Biti said.

Mbeki's approach has produced some moments that caused even supporters to cringe.

On April 12, when southern African regional leaders gathered in neighboring Zambia for an emergency meeting on the Zimbabwean crisis, Mugabe refused to attend but Mbeki met with him anyway, in Harare. Photographers captured the two men, dressed almost identically in suits, wearing necklaces of fresh blossoms, smiling broadly as they clasped hands like old friends. In a news conference that day, Mbeki questioned whether there was a "crisis" in Zimbabwe at all.

Also damaging was Mbeki's attempt to host a mediation session on July 5, a week after Mugabe had declared victory in a reelection campaign that left nearly 100 opposition activists dead and thousands of others injured. Tsvangirai withdrew from the election and said there could be no negotiations until the attacks on his supporters ended.

Mbeki ignored that condition and invited Tsvangirai to meet with Mugabe at his official residence, a setting that opposition leaders said would have conveyed an air of legitimacy to the election. Tsvangirai boycotted the meeting.

Swazi election observer Marwick T. Khumalo, a member of the Pan-African Parliament, said that proposing talks at Mugabe's residence showed "bad taste" on Mbeki's part.

Despite the failure of that meeting, negotiations of sorts have begun in Zimbabwe, under the oversight of South Africa. Though the opposition dismisses the talks as having no promise until Mugabe ends his campaign of state-sponsored violence, both sides acknowledge that in a nation with annual inflation measured in the millions of percent, there may be no other course.

Yet Mbeki's time for brokering a solution -- and removing the stain of Mugabe from his own legacy -- is rapidly dwindling. Mugabe, who continues to look remarkably vigorous for his age, could easily remain in office longer than Mbeki, whose second and final term as president is due to end in mid-2009.

Mbeki's legacy in Africa is "in tatters," said Karima Brown, political editor of the South African newspaper Business Day. "Thabo Mbeki is really yesterday's man. He's done."


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