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Obama starts diplomatic effort on Zimbabwe with a phone call to Pretoria

U.S. President Barack Obama signaled that Zimbabwe is a top priority by phoning South Africa. Obama called South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, according to a White House statement, to emphasize that Pretoria has an important role to play in finding a solution for Zimbabwe’s growing humanitarian crisis.

Most likely Obama is signaling that he would like to see South Africa take a tougher line towards Mugabe. The former Bush administration had largely left South Africa in charge of diplomatic initiatives on Zimbabwe. South Africa has consistently avoided putting any firm pressure on Mugabe. In fact many blame former South African President Thabo Mbeki as being Mugabe’s protector and enabler. “Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy on Zimbabwe has only achieved one thing: It has kept Mugabe in power,” said Zimbabwean analyst John Makumbe.

New U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week that she would like to see South Africa put more pressure on Mugabe.

The urgency for a change in policy towards Mugabe came from the latest statistics which showed that Zimbabwe’s cholera death toll has climbed above 3,000, according to the World Health Organization. For proof of Zimbabwe's economic implosion, look at this BBC story about how the new budget, which accepts payments in U.S. dollars and other foreign currencies, is making the Zimbawe currency virtually worthless.

There is considerable speculation in Harare and Washington that Obama intends to be more assertive in pushing Mugabe. His phone call could be a diplomatic start to pressure Pretoria to take a harsher line towards Mugabe. South Africa is also the most influential member of the Southern African Development Community, the 15-member group which has been notoriously soft on Mugabe for several years.

Obama’s representative to the United Nations, Susan Rice, is expected to press the U.N. Security Council to consider Zimbabwe. Some suggest that the U.S. will urge the U.N. to put targeted sanctions on the Mugabe regime. Or the Obama administration could also propose that the Security Council authorize the U.N. to investigate Mugabe for crimes against humanity.