South African President Jacob Zuma and his Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe, are seen at the AU summit in Addis Ababa earlier this year.

Johannesburg - It is most unfortunate that the Presidency has distanced itself from Lindiwe Zulu, President Jacob Zuma’s foreign policy adviser and member of his Zimbabwe facilitation team, especially when she is under a sustained and obscene attack from President Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF.

It will look like backing down to people with dubious motives.

The Presidency issued a statement on Sunday noting “with great concern, recent unfortunate statements made on the situation in Zimbabwe, which have been attributed to a member of the technical team supporting the facilitator, President Jacob Zuma”.

It added that a number of statements had been made during Zuma’s facilitation of the Zimbabwe negotiations which were unauthorised, regrettable and unfortunate. “Some of the utterances have also been inaccurate.”

The statement denied a Friday news agency report which had quoted Zulu saying that Zuma had telephoned Mugabe to express his unhappiness about preparations for the July 31 elections.

The Presidency rapped Zulu particularly sharply when it said the technical team supporting Zuma “cannot impose its views on Zimbabwe nor make public pronouncements”.

One can understand, to a degree, the rationale offered for this statement. Zuma is facilitating the Zimbabwe negotiations on behalf of SADC and has to keep his SADC and South African roles separate.

But the timing of this statement will play right into Mugabe’s hands. It came just a day after he said at an election campaign rally: “I appeal to President Zuma to stop this woman of theirs from speaking on Zimbabwe.”

A week before Mugabe had – disgracefully – referred to Zulu as an “idiotic streetwoman”.

Zuma and the Presidency should have protested against that insulting statement – along with all the other attacks on her by Mugabe’s henchmen, including his propaganda chief Jonathan Moyo.

Whether Zulu really said Zuma had called Mugabe is inconsequential. The fact is that Zuma, as facilitator, had called a summit of SADC’s security troika to discuss concerns about the elections.

That summit did take place in Pretoria on Saturday evening. After the summit, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, current chair of the security troika, expressed himself strongly on Zimbabwe’s unpreparedness for elections.

He warned that it would be tough to organise them in such a short time, noted the chaotic handling of special voting last week and clearly laid the blame on the Zimbabwe government (in effect Mugabe), for failing to take SADC’s advice last month – to postpone the poll.

That is the reality behind this spat. Mugabe’s remarks about Zulu are, at best, a diversionary tactic. She has become the lightning rod for vicious attacks which were really intended for Zuma because he has been even-handed in his facilitation.

Zulu’s only fault has been honesty and transparency. She has merely tried to keep the media informed about a matter of vital interest. Where is the evidence that she “imposed her views on Zimbabwe” as the Presidency’s statement implies?

It is the SADC Secretariat’s role to keep everyone informed. But it doesn’t.

One would have understood if the Presidency had decided to take Zulu off the case for a while because she had become too much of the story herself.

But why make a public statement accusing her of imposing her views on Zimbabwe? The Zimbabwe state media will have a field day with this.

The Presidency’s desire to continue “warm historical relations” with Zimbabwe, makes it clear this is a response to Mugabe’s protests.

Independent Foreign Service