PRESIDENT Mugabe is leading a Zimbabwean delegation in South Africa for bilateral talks under the banner of the Bi-National Commission. This is the Second Session of the BNC. President Zuma attended the reverse fixture of the bilateral talks in Harare this time last year.
The talks cover a range of issues from economic and trade issues to social phenomena such as human migration. Zimbabwe and South Africa have relations that are strong; very strong in fact. Relations between these two neighbours bounded by the Limpopo River are historical and modern and make for 21st century diplomacy.
They go beyond the minor -- and this is an important point. With the current state of political discourse in both countries, there have been frenzied expectations that there be a breakdown of relations from the ideological and political to economic. Over the past two decades, there have been expectations by some quarters that South Africa plays some kind of Big Brother to Zimbabwe, playground bully or headmaster.
It was expected that South Africa would use its economic hegemony (which may not be too big, after all) to leverage political influence in Harare, especially which would result in regime change in the country. The Europeans and Americans wanted it. The grovelling opposition of Zimbabwe once called for sanctions on the country in terms of energy cut off and other measures.
The opposition has also been periodically lobbying South Africa's Sadc regional leadership to help effect regime change. South Africa has resisted and it has obviously disappointed the sources of pressure. With the continuation of relations, and in particular President Jacob Zuma rolling the red carpet for President Mugabe, some interests on both sides of the river are truly miffed. The media here in South Africa have been majoring in the minors.
That does not detract from the business of the day -- and future. President Jacob Zuma yesterday warmly welcomed his counterpart from up north. He outlined the context in which relations between the two countries can be placed. They are deeply historical -- and President Mugabe has his place in that very warm historical sun.
He aided the independence of South Africa. He was a friend of Oliver Tambo, former ANC, who is a revered figure in South Africa. This whole year has been dedicated to him -- The Year of Oliver Reginald Tambo. It is a year in which he could have turned 100 years and throughout the year President Zuma and the ruling ANC have been honouring him and giving him space in speeches and discourse.
And yesterday President Zuma placed President Mugabe firmly side by side with Oliver Tambo. Said President Zuma: "We meet in the month of October, which is the birth month of late the O.R. Tambo.
"I personally know that you had various interactions with Comrade Tambo during his lifetime. Upon attainment of Zimbabwe's Independence, it was Comrade Tambo himself who personally approached you to discuss the possibility of opening the ANC office in Harare, then Salisbury. You were aware of the risks associated with accepting such a request, yet you concurred. O.R. Tambo himself spoke profoundly of you, Excellency, during the 8th Conference of Heads of State or Government of non-aligned countries, held in Harare, in September 1986, where he said: 'As Chairman, you have taken over as Chief-of-Staff of a movement that has transformed itself into a taskforce that will fight in both the forward and rear echelons, to complete the process of the total liberation of Africa to which the victory of the struggle in Zimbabwe made, and is making, such a historic contribution. Under your courageous, experienced and far-sighted leadership we are certain to march to victory.'"
South Africa has been faithful to Zimbabwe. This is as driven by history and politics as by economics. Economic dynamics have tended to be given precedence in the conception of modern day relations. South Africa is economically superior, but the truth is that it cannot, and will not do without Zimbabwe, one of its top five trading partners.
Annually about $5 billion exchanges hands between the two countries. Cooperation between the two countries, which have been anchored on various agreements, cover a wide range of areas including double taxation, justice, defence, transport, water, science and technology, health, migration, labour, economic and trade cooperation, and tourism, among others.
The two share Africa's busiest port Beitbridge, which is an important landmark and plans are afoot to make it one stop shop and speed up traffic. South Africa has been cooperating with Zimbabwe and even responded with warmth when Zimbabwe enunciated trade regulations meant to protect local industry through SI 64.
There had been a reasonable fear that SA would not like it. But South Africa has even been pushing for the inclusion of Zimbabwe and other regional countries in an industrialisation agenda. There are a number of South African private sector companies operating in Zimbabwe in major areas of mining, industry and retail and this is an important marker.
South Africa has been at the receiving end of the phenomenon of migration from Zimbabwe for economic and social reasons -- many view it as possessing the proverbial greener pastures. South Africa has carried this burden gracefully. Despite pressures to use this as a stick with which to politically beat Zimbabwe with, South Africa has taken great pains to regularise and incorporate Zimbabweans so that they can be economically and socially feel at home.
(The cynical argue that South Africa cannot do without cheap Zimbabwean labour; or actually a weaker Zimbabwean economy.)
At the moment it has once again extended a special dispensation for Zimbabweans to legally stay here. President Zuma, like presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Monthlante before him, understands the times.
He says, "The battles we face today are of a different kind. Our struggles are about the economic emancipation of our people. While this remains a challenging task, I am certain that our joint efforts will lead us there."
President Zuma, who steps down from the helm of the ANC in December pending the expiry of his term as state President in 2019, has been a good friend of Zimbabwe. The good thing is that the next president is likely to follow the time honoured tradition of the ANC leadership.
Things will also likely improve in Zimbabwe, too, and the good neighbour will no longer have to feel burdened.