President, press and party

Government support for Robert Mugabe has given the South African media a few headaches.

PRESIDENT MBEKI'S public handholding with Robert Mugabe has created a few difficulties for the pro-government press in South Africa as well as for his party. Initially many of the newspapers were highly critical of Mugabe and the land invasions. This did not suit Mbeki, for such coverage only fuels criticism of his refusal to speak up for human rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe. More importantly it hinders one of Mbeki's chief domestic concerns: to exert pressure on Cosatu's Zwelenzima Vavi and Willie Madisha not to follow the logic of their recent strike and launch a new political party representing labour that would be to the left of the ANC. This concern has reinforced Mbeki's determination to help prevent a victory in Zimbabwe for Morgan Tsvangirai, the former trade union leader who now heads the main Opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. He fears that it would only encourage a labour-led opposition movement within South Africa.

Naturally, the more craven sections of South Africa's media were willing to oblige. Almost all the newspapers - the Mail & Guardian being an honourable exception - accepted at face value Mbeki's insistence that Zimbabwe was suffering from a land crisis rather than state terrorism. Independent Newspapers carried a long interview with Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe's minister of justice, without ever revealing that he was a former head of the feared Central Intelligence Organisation and one of the architects of the 5 Brigade atrocities. Business Day has repeatedly toned down criticism of Mugabe in its Zimbabwe coverage, while SABC television's newsroom loyally takes the Mbeki line to the extent of extensive censorship of news from Zimbabwe. Those responsible for the recent Special Assignment documentary on Zimbabwe - notably critical of Mugabe - were apparently severely reprimanded by the SABC hierarchy.

All of this makes even more remarkable the motion, drafted by Pieter Venter, head of the ANC's media liaison department, and moved in parliament by Pallo Jordan MP. It condemned, in the name of the ANC, the thuggery, violence and brutality on display in Zimbabwe and openly questioned whether a free and fair election was possible in the circumstances. Jordan, a former minister who was sacked by Mbeki, tabled the motion on May 23 during the president's absence in the US. That day the SABC carried a news item about the motion in its mid-day news but dropped all mention of it from its later bulletins - perhaps as it sank in that this was an implicit challenge to the president. The next day the press duly covered the motion but without drawing attention to its obvious - and highly newsworthy - import. It was only when Mbeki, at his San Francisco press conference, disagreed publicly with the National Democratic Institute's report on Zimbabwe, which concluded that conditions for a credible democratic election did not exist there, that the newspapers woke up to the fact there was a clear contradiction between the President's views and those of his party.