Robert Mugabe has always played the region like a violin. He behaves like the neighbourhood ruffian sauntering around the place like he owns it.
When it comes to the security arm of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), he quite literally believed it was his to keep.
It took then President Nelson Mandela to bring him to heel. The confrontation nearly upstaged the Non Aligned Summit that South Africa was hosting in Durban 16 years ago.
It was the final straw for the Zimbabwe president, who never got over Mandela upstaging him as the regional liberation leader of international choice. It has coloured bilateral relations between Zimbabwe and South Africa ever since.
Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki attracted almost as much international opprobrium for overlooking the inequities of his northern neighbour as he did with his AIDS denialism.
He was loath to take on Mugabe and he placed solidarity with the president driving his country deeper and deeper into the sand above the moral high ground South Africa occupied internationally following it’s relatively bloodless transition from apartheid to democracy.
Remember how his foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said one would never hear any criticism of Zimbabwe and Mugabe from South Africa?
Next up, President Jacob Zuma looked like he might take a more measured stance. He avoided the comradely hugs Mugabe is so fond of imparting to show who is really the boss.
He joined Zimbabwe’s neighbours in holding Mugabe’s foot to the fire to end Zimbabwe’s crash dive by forcing the ruling ZANU PF to enter into a power sharing deal with the two branches of the Movement for Democratic Change.
The SADC summit at the Victoria Falls earlier this week has effectively endorsed the disputed outcome of elections swept by ZANU PF last year that ended the arrangement.
It is not the least bit surprising that Mugabe should enjoy the support of the region that has previously given the seal of approval to even more contentious elections so blatantly stolen by Mugabe that the United States and Europe slapped punitive sanctions on him and a number of his henchmen.
Whatever encouragement Mugabe might have drawn from the regional thumbs up it has not fooled potential investors who continue to give the thumbs down to the once prosperous country of 13 million people.
Probably most repellent is legislation requiring 51% of foreign and white-opened businesses to be ceded to black Zimbabweans.
Unemployment in what could be the breadbasket of the region is estimated to exceed 80%.
Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa has halved the growth forecast for the present financial year to 3,1%. The World Bank expects nothing better than 2%.
Small wonder the line at the passport office in Harare stretches several blocks as Zimbabweans leave their country in droves. Most of them head south over the Limpopo River.
Following a plea by Harare authorities the South African Home Affairs Ministry has extended until 2017 the dispensation for Zimbabweans seeking residence here.
In the race to succeed Robert Mugabe the smart runners are still hiding behind the hedges. But with a 90 year old leader to replace some are becoming bolder.
Deputy foreign minister Christopher Mutsvangwa was given a spread on the ZANU PF mouthpiece on the eve of the summit to denounce the party’s secretary for administration and once presidential favourite Didymus Mutasa as a coward during the liberation struggle who is now mistakenly trying to market himself as a kingmaker.
One sure indication that the tribal drum is sounding is when the activists return to draw from the Chimurenga well.
In his rambling question and answer interview with the Herald, Mutsvanwa also warned Deputy President Joyce Mujuru to get behind the aspirations of Mugabe’s wife Grace who has decided to enter the political arena. It remains to be seen whether the impending loss to South African luxury goods retailers will be Zimbabwe’s gain.
With the exception of Botswana’s President Ian Khama, who has been the lone voice of criticism against Mugabe within SADC, regional leaders look on benignly.
Their sense of irony was tested to the limit by the man they have chosen to make the new rotating president of their body urged them to rely less on foreign aid. His actions have choked off most assistance from abroad, leaving him to bite the British hand that continues to feed him.
They ignored the calls by human rights watchdog groups to discuss abuses in Zimbabwe and other SADC countries.
They have, however taken the first steps to revive the SADC Tribunal – but in a form more acceptable to Mugabe to had the previous regional court scrapped who it ruled in favour of a white farmer who’s land has been seized.
Will leaders of the African Union be as accepting of Mugabe to whom they are due to hand the baton next January?
A previous holder was Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Africa’s longest serving dictator, so maybe.