JOHANNESBURG // When Robert Mugabe's government made clear that three of the Elders, the distinguished group of global statesmen, were not welcome in Zimbabwe last week, South Africa's leaders tried to intervene - and failed utterly. Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, Jimmy Carter, the former president of the United States, and Graça Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, wanted to mount a humanitarian fact-finding mission to the benighted country, but were considered "partisan" by Harare.
"We did make attempts to speak to President Mugabe about the request of the Elders to visit Zimbabwe," said Kgalema Motlanthe, South Africa's president. "The response was he was out of town and as soon as he would come back they would give him the message he should come back to us. "He didn't come back to us." Mr Motlanthe has a dry, formal manner, and he described events in a straight, factual way. But the naked snub he revealed speaks volumes about Mr Mugabe's attitude towards his fellow leaders, and the impotence of the international community when it comes to Zimbabwe.
Even when faced with as unthreatening a prospect as a visit by three respected elders, Zimbabwe's octogenarian leader chose simply to ignore the attempted entreaties of his colleagues and within days the problem - literally - went away, leaving him as untouched as ever. Having been in power for 28 years, Mr Mugabe's longevity - coupled with his role in the struggle for independence on a continent where anti-colonialism remains a key political consideration - gives him an unparalleled standing among his peers. And as one of the last surviving "big men", he considers himself senior to the upstart heads of state of nearby countries who might dare to criticise him - an outlook epitomised by his public patronising of Ian Khama, the president of Botswana, at the signing ceremony for the power-sharing deal in September, when he told him what a good man his father had been.
Mr Annan himself criticised the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for failing to take a tougher stance on Zimbabwe. "They could have at various stages taken different decisions which could have had a different impact," he said. Mr Mugabe has made a remarkable comeback over the months since the first round of the elections in March, when his Zanu-PF party lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since independence in 1980 and he was beaten into second place in the presidential poll by Morgan Tsvangirai, of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
At the time, some analysts were predicting he would be gone within 24 hours. Instead, and despite widespread western condemnation and even some African criticism, he remains president and appears to be in a position to dominate the unity government, if and when it is formed. It is a tribute to the effectiveness of brutality, intransigence and sheer determination to hold on to power, whatever the consequences for others.
As a result, and especially given Zanu-PF's nature as a power network that extends across the machinery of the Zimbabwean state, rather than simply a tool of one man at the top, realpolitik has to come into play. "Anyone who is sensible enough to analyse the results of the elections will have to admit that all parties involved need each other to work," Ms Machel said. "We may not like many things which have happened with that government, but it has to be brought on board. There's no possibility of ignoring it.
"As we stand, the interests of power are in certain hands. We have to work with those hands to open and release it. We may not like it, but pragmatism says that's the way to go." It is undoubtedly the most realistic position to take, but it is fraught with dangers, given Mr Mugabe's oft-demonstrated bad faith. SADC went down the pragmatist route this month when it decreed that the home affairs ministry, the subject of a deadlock between Zanu-PF and the MDC, should be administered jointly.
The decision left no part of the state security apparatus in the exclusive control of the opposition and Zanu-PF accepted it with alacrity, while the MDC rejected it. Effectively, the region had given its imprimatur to Mr Mugabe's power grab. Even if it had been willing to confront him, he had given it no plausible alternative if it wanted to keep him in its faltering negotiation process. Tony Reeler, a Zimbabwean activist writing for the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, said: "There are now exceptionally serious questions about whether SADC is an institution with the gravitas to resolve the crisis, or is merely a club for all the old 'Liberation boys', who value each other more than they value their respective peoples.
"For it is clear that this most recent decision of SADC has continued the old game of placing leaders above people." firstname.lastname@example.org