In a recent al-Jazeera broadcast, former president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki claimed that then United Kingdom prime minister Tony Blair pressured him to cooperate on joint British–South African military action to depose Robert Mugabe as president of Zimbabwe.
Blair was UK prime minister from 1997 to 2007. From media reports it is unclear when Blair allegedly pressured Mbeki, who was South African chief of state from 1999 to 2008, but dominated the South African executive after 1994. Mbeki claims that Blair pressured retired UK field marshall Baron Charles Guthrie to approach Mbeki, but Guthrie pushed back. Guthrie retired in 2001 but continued to advise Blair’s government on a variety of issues.
Former Prime Minister Blair has issued a statement denying that he put pressure on South Africa to remove Mugabe in a military operation. According to his spokesman quoted in Agence France Press, Blair “long believed that Zimbabwe would be much better off without Robert Mugabe and always argued for a tougher stance against him, but he never asked anyone to plan or take part in any such military intervention.”
Mbeki’s spokesman says the former president stands by his words.
What is going on here?
Mugabe’s regime is delighted with the allegations. Mugabe’s governing ZANU-PF party has long claimed that the UK and the United States seek regime change through violence if necessary and in cahoots with Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. A Mugabe mouthpiece, The Herald, quotes Guthrie as saying to the British media (without specific attribution) that he pushed back against Blair, warning that it would be “suicidal to pit British troops against ‘the tried and tested veterans of the Congo,’” where Zimbabwe had intervened. So ZANU-PF is also able to trumpet the Zimbabwean army -which many observers see as rag-tag at best- as striking fear in the heart of a British field marshall, even a retired one.
I think we can take Blair’s flat denial at face value. British public support for military intervention in Zimbabwe is almost inconceivable and would have hardly advanced Britain’s wider interests in Africa.
So, why did Mbeki say it?
He may actually believe it. He may have seen Blair’s tough stance on Mugabe as somehow involving possible military intervention. Mugabe has been bitterly critical of Western intervention in Iraq and Libya; he may find the notion of British military intervention in Zimbabwe so likely that, in hindsight, he may read that intention into what his British interlocutors had to say about Zimbabwe.
Among South African political leaders, Mbeki has also long been seen as “soft” on Mugabe, whom he sees as a fellow leader of the African liberation struggle.