To understand the effectiveness of President Thabo Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy, we need to understand that, sometimes, finding African solutions to African problems is a phenomenon that cannot be put into words.
In fact, most people cannot grasp or conceptualise it.
Here is a made-up attempt to explain what has been happening over the past few years, which culminated in the recent democratic elections in Zimbabwe.
President Mbeki has given an ear to both leaders.
It all began with Robert Mugabe, who came to present his African solution to Mbeki.
“The liberation movement has fought very hard to attain independence and self-determination for African people. We cannot give our beautiful and fertile land white imperialist control and ownership, again.”
Mugabe was convinced that he was right. He did not expect Mbeki to disagree with him. After all, what right-thinking African statesman would want to see African land and the wealth buried in its bosom given to white imperialists?
Of course, Mugabe was right.
But President Mbeki had looked at him. And he was quiet.
When Mugabe left the meeting, he was a delighted man. Is it not true that silence gives consent? He immediately told his confidantes that Mbeki had agreed with him.
A few days later, Morgan Tsvangirai heard about this meeting. He immediately sought an audience with Mbeki to confront him. How could this be? Mugabe is a brutal African dictator who had overstayed his welcome. It should not have been difficult for Mbeki to tell him so.
“Mugabe is giving the continent a bad name. He is obsessed with power and has dragged the country into economic ruin. I cannot believe that you agree with him. You know that I am the best man to lead Zimbabwe. I am the winds of change that the people have been waiting for.”
Tsvangirai was convinced that he was right. He did not expect Mbeki to disagree with him.
After all, what right-thinking African statesman would support a leader who wants to see African land and the wealth buried in her bosom given to white imperialists?
Of course, Tsvangirai was always right.
President Mbeki looked at him. And he was quiet.
When Tsvangirai left the meeting, he was a delighted man. Is it not true that silence gives consent? He immediately told his confidantes that Mbeki had agreed with him.
Unfortunately, some of Mbeki’s political colleagues heard about both of these encounters. After the meeting with Tsvangirai, they could not contain themselves.
“Wait a minute,” they said to Mbeki. “You told Mugabe that he was right when he said African land and the wealth in its bosom must remain in African hands and it should not be given to white imperialists. And you told Tsvangirai the same thing. Well, which of the two is correct? They cannot both be correct.”
Again, Mbeki looked at them. And he was quiet.
What are we to make of this “quiet diplomacy?” Is it just silly imagination? Is Mbeki too intelligent or stupid?
(If you think that Mbeki does not say anything but just keeps quiet in a meeting, you are mistaken.)
Most people have failed to grasp quiet diplomacy is because everybody expects to hear what they want to from President Mbeki. And as long as people want him to do as they expect, he cannot say anything.
Quite diplomacy is beyond the conceptual grasp of these people.
Though democratic elections have taken place in Zimbabwe, now, very few people have directly spoken about or described anything that Mbeki has said or done, except to admit to closed-door sessions with both Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
It has been much easier to grasp at media speculations and stories than just to see what Mbeki has said and done.
In fact, people have boxed Mbeki up in their minds. They have insisted that he must do this or that to live up to their own expectations to solve the problems of Zimbabwe. Or else they, just like the media, have decided that he has not done anything.
Those who feel magnanimous have said quiet diplomacy has not worked and blame it for everything that has gone wrong in Zimbabwe, including the lack of election results.
Well, people need to stop looking for a particular thing that Mbeki said or did not say to any of the leaders of Zimbabwe. There is no particular thing that he has said or particular answer that he has given that is different from what has taken place in his own country.
Many people have failed to see the effectiveness of quiet diplomacy because they have wanted to separate what is happening in Zimbabwe from what happens in any other democracy, including the Russia, Kenya, United States and South Africa, if you like.
You will simply not find any one Great Leader who can solve the whole world’s problems.
Democracy is an experience that expresses the collective will of the people of a country. It is not something that can be prescribed by one Great Leader.
The ultimate failing to appreciate quiet diplomacy is to believe that Mbeki, alone, holds African solutions in his hands.
When you expect one Great Leader of Mbeki’s stature to act, alone, you are making it impossible for African people themselves to take responsibility for their own future.
Ultimately, what Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy teaches us is that we must abandon the notion that any one Great Leader is going to solve Africa’s problems. That would not be democracy, but autocracy.
We have to stop looking at any one man like Mbeki to save Africa on his own. True democracy is keeping quiet to allow Africans take their own present and future into their own hands.
What happens or fails to happen on the African continent will always be a direct result of what African people themselves choose to do and not what one Great Leader decides.
Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy is the best gift to the people of Zimbabwe to find solutions to their own African problems!