HARARE, Zimbabwe — Jacob Zuma had a dim impression of this capital city when he arrived on his first visit as South Africa's president.
The airport lights were out due to a power cut so vehicles on the runway were pressed into service to provide illumination for Zuma’s welcome by President Robert Mugabe. It was too dark for an inspection of the guard of honor so that had to be cancelled.
Zuma had been warned what to expect. Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba, in a crude case of agenda-setting ahead of the visit, had said: “The one thing that is going to hit President Zuma in the face is the continued sanctions on Zimbabwe.”
Every shortage in the country is ascribed by Mugabe’s followers to sanctions in a bid to duck responsibility for 30 years of misrule. More recently there has been a concerted attempt by Charamba and other Mugabe officials to refute the claim by Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai that there are still outstanding issues to be resolved in the government of national unity. There is only one thing left to be resolved and that is sanctions, Mugabe’s politburo has declared.
Tsvangirai has asked Zuma, as chair of the Southern African Development Community which backs the Zimbabwean agreement, to challenge Mugabe on his arbitrary appointments of top officials, selective application of the law and lack of progress on reforms such as opening up the media. Up until the day of Zuma’s arrival last week, Mugabe’s ministers were chanting the sanctions mantra. A cartoon in an independent newspaper showed Mugabe in the back of his limousine rambling on about sanctions while Zuma snoozed.
MDC concerns were a “distraction,” Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa said. “We hope President Mugabe tells President Zuma that the one big issue here is that of sanctions.”
His colleague, Didymus Mutasa, who has in the past described Mugabe as Zimbabwe’s “king,” said Mugabe’s appointment of a pliable attorney-general and Reserve Bank governor were “not for negotiation.”
“The MDC must grow up,” he said. “What they are saying is absolute nonsense. They are behaving like small babies.”
Despite Mugabe’s efforts to divert Zuma’s attention from the outstanding issues, the South African leader has signaled a more robust approach in dealing with his troubled northern neighbor. His African National Congress party’s secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, indicating a shift from the “quiet diplomacy” of former president Thabo Mbeki, said South Africa will be more outspoken in its attempt to curb what he called “deviant behavior” in the Mugabe camp.
In his speech at the opening of the Harare Agricultural Show, Zuma spoke of the need to meet terms defined last September in what is called the Global Political Agreement that established the power-sharing government — a key MDC demand — and the need for full implementation of the agreement.
"We are aware that some economic and development partners and donor countries have put some benchmarks to be met before they can extend financial assistance and currently only offer humanitarian assistance,” Zuma said. “Since these relate to the implementation of the GPA, to which signatories remain fully committed, meeting benchmarks should be a priority of the inclusive government.”
He also placed emphasis upon the need for agricultural stability, a clear reference to the chaos taking place on Zimbabwe’s farms.
He spoke of the need to “restore full productivity of all agricultural land in the interest of all the people of Zimbabwe.”
Zuma came to open the Harare Agricultural Show, the annual fair that used to be a grand display of Zimbabwe's agricultural productivity and the industries that supported farming. The once impressive show of Zimbabwe's prosperity now bears more resemblance to a shabby flea market. Zuma and Mugabe walked by empty stands. Where once huge dairy cows and plump pigs testified to the nation’s agricultural self-sufficiency, there is now a dustbowl.
Gone is the state-of-the-art equipment that advertised the country’s agricultural prowess. Gone are the trappings of a successful state. The only cows on display belonged to the president’s nephew. Many government stands were empty. Women at the Ministry for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises were exhibiting their crochet work.
The contrast with South Africa, which boasts the continent's most developed economy, couldn’t have been clearer.
“It shows just how far down the road to dereliction we have come,” said veteran show-goer Freddy Tafara. “It is a tragedy really when you think what we once exhibited here.”
Mugabe’s publicists have always said South Africa has much to learn from Zimbabwe’s example. Reflecting during his flight back to Pretoria on what he had seen, Zuma could have only agreed.