Foreign Policy Blogs

Mbeki To Sudan

One of the biggest problems that African policymakers face is the risk of being reduced to one or two usually failing policies. The majority of Americans pay Africa virtually no heed as it is, and so complexity gets lost in favor of simple, and thus simplistic, renderings of African leaders. Ask even educated Americans (or, for that matter, Brits, or the French, or just about anyone else) about Thabo Mbeki and if his name receives any recognition at all it will come in response to one of two policies: Mbeki's odd (though in recent years tempered) AIDS dissidence and his Zimbabwe policy, which at best is inscrutable and morally vacuous.

And yet it would be a mistake to define Mbeki by these two issues, even if both mark blots on his escutcheon. Yesterday Mbeki arrived in Khartoum alongside his Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma for talks with President Omar el-Bashir and First Vice President Salva Kiir. According to South Africa's Department of Foreign Affairs:

“President Mbeki's visit to Sudan takes place within the context of South Africa's priority to encourage the full implementation of the African Union (AU)-United Nations (UN) agreement on the hybrid force for Darfur and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the North and the South.”

Say what you will (readers of the blog certainly know that I have) about Mbeki's seeming fecklessness with regard to Robert Mugabe. The fact remains that not only can South Africa be a force for good in African foreign affairs, South Africa is probably the continent's most essential actor. The brunt of the disappointment about South Africa's policies toward Zimbabwe is based on the fact that South Africa can effect change in the region if it so chooses. (After all, SADC as a whole voted effectively to prop up Robert Mugabe's regime. When's the last time you read a vitriolic piece about the leader of any other SADC member nation with regard to Zimbabwe? Not too many outlets have vented rage against Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba's seeming  accomodation of Mugabe.)

Part of Mbeki's problem is that he now has to live up to the heightened expectations that his government has earned. The plight of Zimbabwe has rightfully garnered Mbeki considerable criticism. But perhaps the situation in Sudan can earn him approbation as well. Just because the tendency is to turn Africans into cardboard characters fitting the attention span of the “Western” news cycle does not make the characterization accurate. The Sudan situation is too serious and Mbeki's possible capacity to help nudge Khartoum along too important, for such facile reductionism. That said, let's hope that Mbeki does use the power of coercion rather than the tendency toward accomodation while he is in Sudan.