April 16 2008 at 07:37PM
By Michael Georgy
South African President Thabo Mbeki's refusal to take a tougher line on neighbouring Zimbabwe has further damaged his credibility and handed rival Jacob Zuma another opening to improve his image.
Regional leaders last year mandated Mbeki to lead mediation between President Robert Mugabe and the opposition but his insistence on "quiet diplomacy" failed to make headway.
As a post-election deadlock deepened in Zimbabwe following the failure to release results from the March 29 presidential poll, Mbeki continued to downplay the situation, saying there was no crisis.
His steadfast refusal to change his stance has brought a flood of criticism and given Zuma a golden chance to strengthen his image abroad, where his corruption trial in August has raised concerns about the future direction of South Africa.
If Zuma can survive the case, he is front runner to succeed Mbeki in 2009, having already ousted him last December as leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
"If Jacob Zuma could broker some kind of resolution in Zimbabwe that the international community, particularly Britain and the United States would be happy with, that would probably go a long way to alleviate concerns that other countries have regarding Jacob Zuma's own leadership ability," said analyst Mark Schroeder.
Analysts say Zuma may be angling to become a leading mediator in the crisis to boost his international capital.
In his toughest statement yet on Zimbabwe, Zuma expressed apprehension on Wednesday at the post-election deadlock and its impact on the neighbouring region, and criticised the delay in issuing results that Mbeki has defended.
Mbeki is already seen by critics as a lame duck president and has been battered on a range of issues, where his reluctance to change direction has been similar to his stance on Zimbabwe.
He has presided over an economic boom but crime and poverty are still rife. A major crisis over lack of power generation has raised fears about the possible impact on the broader economy.
Critics blame Mbeki for ignoring warnings years ago that the country lacked the power capacity to fuel a booming economy.
He also infuriated Aids activists for years by questioning accepted Aids science while the disease killed about 1 000 people a day and by delaying the wide distribution of anti-retroviral drugs.
Zuma, without Mbeki's education and intellect but oozing with the charisma he lacks, portrays himself both as a man of the people and someone who can keep foreign investment flowing into Africa's biggest economy.
His decisive response to the Zimbabwe issue, backed by the ANC and his trade union allies, has raised his stature.
"If you take the new ANC leadership generally, I think this is positive for them. It will enhance their image in the eyes of the world. I think there has been lot of anxiety about what the new Zuma-ANC is going to be like. They are showing there is greater resolve than there has been under Mbeki," said veteran political commentator Allister Sparks.
Under fire for his domestic policies, Mbeki wants to be remembered as a champion of African causes, despite what critics say is ineffectiveness in Zimbabwe, which has flooded his country with millions of economic migrants and at times dented the rand currency.
"His political leadership is fragile but he is trying to work on a legacy and the legacy he is trying to work is very much in terms of Africa and southern Africa," said Susan Booysen, a political analyst at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
Just before leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) gathered for an emergency summit on Zimbabwe in Lusaka on Saturday, Mbeki flew to Harare for talks with Mugabe.
As Zimbabweans anxiously awaited results of an election they hoped would ease food and food shortages and hyper-inflation, Mbeki walked hand in hand with Mugabe on the airport tarmac. It's an image that may haunt him if Zimbabwe's catastrophic downward spiral continues.
Mbeki was under the spotlight again on Wednesday when he chaired a meeting of key members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and the African Union at which Zimbabwe became a key topic despite his efforts to focus on other issues.
Mbeki, current rotating president of the Security Council, had resisted pressure from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Western powers to discuss Zimbabwe.
Mbeki is unlikely to budge, analysts say.
"Zimbabwe has been one of his leading issues. For him to accept backing down to the ANC right now would be a huge slap in his face, a huge embarrassment," said Schroeder, regional director for sub-Saharan Africa at risk analysis firm Stratfor, Strategic Forecasting, Inc.
"He is certainly a stubborn leader," Schroeder said.source