President Jacob Zuma was defended from an unexpected quarter on Wednesday, when visiting Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe urged the South African media to “stop tarnishing him”.
“You can tarnish me – I don’t care,” he said at a media conference after he had met Zuma for official talks on his first state visit to South Africa since 1994.
“We are Africans. We don’t tarnish our leaders,” he said, adding that while political opponents could have disagreements, they should support national unity.
Though Mugabe sniped at his old enemies such as former British prime minister Tony Blair and Western governments more generally, he also showed flashes of surprising humility.
He and his ministers had exchanged some very harsh words when Zuma was trying to mediate an agreement between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) a few years ago. But on Wednesday he was full of praise for Zuma, congratulating him for his government’s efforts to resolve the recent political dispute in Lesotho and for its peacekeeping work in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He also thanked Pretoria for its tolerance of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants, “as our people have really offended… by jumping the border and disturbing your social systems.”
He said this problem had been discussed in the talks on Wednesday, “and we said we must find ways of controlling the movement of people which have not been sanctioned”.
And he referred to South Africa as Zimbabwe’s “elder brother” economically, appealing to it to help Zimbabwe add value to its extensive natural resources.
South Africa rolled out the red carpet for Mugabe, receiving him with full honours on only his second state visit, and raising diplomatic relations to the highest level.
In his long and rambling speech at the media conference, Mugabe also ironically thanked South African journalists for giving him so much publicity “as a real dictator”.
But he insisted that he wasn’t such a dictator after all, citing the way he had let his old enemy, the late Ian Smith, who was the prime minister of the former Rhodesia, keep not only his own farm, but also his father’s farm.