IN MANY RESPECTS, ZIMBABWE AND South Africa, divided by the Limpopo River, make perfect neighbours--socially, economically and politically. Both countries have histories steeped in liberation struggles, and are ruled by former liberation movements. South Africa's ANC and Zimbabwe's Zanu-PF have 149 years of struggle between them.
The two countries are also big trading partners. However, lately, with turbulent politics in Zimbabwe, the relationship is becoming uneasy, especially politically. And it has much to do with the person of President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, and the internal and international dynamics of Zimbabwe's politics.
In 2007, while criticising the then South African president, Thabo Mbeki, for being lenient with "dictators", Zuma said (in reference to Zimbabwe): "It is even more tragic that other world leaders who witness repression pretend it is not happening or is exaggerated."
This was despite Zuma's earlier comments in 2006 rebuking the Western opponents of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. "Europeans," Zuma had said then, "often ignore the fact that Mugabe is very popular among Africans. The people love him, so how can we condemn him?" But, two years later, at a press conference in 2008, Zuma asserted: We cannot agree with Zanu-PF. We cannot agree with them on values. We fought for the right of people to vote, we fought for democracy.
However, after taking over the South African presidency from Mbeki in 2009, and in consequence taking over the political mediation process in Zimbabwe, between Zanu-PF and the two MDC parties, Zuma refused to bow to Western pressure to be "tough with Mugabe".
He even criticised the West for imposing economic sanctions on Zimbabwe, and vowed to continue with the "quiet diplomacy" of his predecessor which he said had achieved much in Zimbabwe.
However, in the past few months, Zuma has ruffled feathers in Harare, causing President Mugabe and Zanu-PF to hint on several occasions that they could reject him as a mediator (between Zanu-PF and the two MDC parties).
Of particular concern have been the utterances of Zuma's international relations advisor, Lindiwe Zulu, who is the spokesperson of a "facilitation" team that has been shuttling between Pretoria and Harare on behalf of Zuma.
Zulu, a former South African diplomat to the European Union, has tried to fashion herself as an "Iron Lady", who, according to her critics, has perceptibly set herself against Zanu-PF.
The EU and the US, which have not hidden their dislike for President Mugabe and Zanu-PF, have often stated that South Africa is their "point man" on Zimbabwe.
In May last year, Zulu allegedly described Zanu-PF's demands for an election in zone as "daydreaming". She touched an even more raw nerve by claiming in an ANC publication that Zimbabwean negotiators are concerned about the succession law should Mugabe die or retire before the adoption of a new constitution.
This did not go down well with Zanu-PF whose national chairman, Simon Khaya Moyo, took the matter up with his ANC counterpart, Baleka Mbete.
In February this year, Zulu was at it again. Speaking at a South African liaison meeting in Pretoria, she said: "As far as the facilitator [President Zuma] is concerned, the environment must be conducive for free and fair elections. …