Supporters welcome President Robert Mugabe, seen on a poster at rear, during a campaign rally in Chitungiwiza recently. Zimbabwe is to hold presidential elections on Wednesday. Picture: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

The Zimbabwean president’s disrespect for Lindiwe Zulu is an affront to all of us, says Makhudu Sefara.

Johannesburg - It must have been one of the most difficult statements to make, but one that the Presidency had no option but to make.

It was like an editor publishing a front-page apology. It’s the sort you look at and sulk for what might appear interminable hours; wonder if it could be tweaked; or if the same message could be conveyed in a less painful manner.

In the end, though, as did our Presidency, you take the pain and publish the damn thing after using strong language against the person who precipitated the mess. For a mess it is.

When the note from the Presidency landed in our inboxes, announcing that South Africa regretted unauthorised statements on Zimbabwe, the pain that went into the drafting process was palpable.

“A number of statements have been made during the facilitation process which have been unauthorised and which are regrettable and unfortunate. Some of the utterances have also been inaccurate.

“The Presidency wishes to correct in particular the reports this weekend that President Zuma telephoned President Robert Mugabe to express his unhappiness about preparations for the Zimbabwean elections. No such telephone call has been made. The report is incorrect.”

Shame. Such needless pain. Needless because Lindiwe Zulu, one of Zuma’s mediators, should have known that any reports about a president talking to another as if they had a relationship akin to that of a principal and a school truant would precipitate diplomatic ructions.

The climb-down looks undignified and undesirable. Megaphone diplomacy, some only now discover, can’t replace quiet diplomacy. More so on this continent, where sovereignty is used by dictators to ward off the prying eyes of those searching for evidence of human rights violations.

Needless too, because, if the phone call about concerns around the hastily arranged polls has not been made, then it should be.

It’s also difficult to imagine that Zuma doesn’t agree with the points made by Zulu. How could he not? The only people not concerned about the situation in Zimbabwe must be Mugabe and a few people in Zanu-PF. So writing a statement to chastise someone with whom you agree can’t be, I imagine, pleasurable.

The issue is the channel used, not the substance of the communication. This made it difficult for Zuma to defend Zulu or justify the manner of the communication. I suspect Zuma tried. So the apology, however painful, was justified.

What wasn’t in order, though, was that Mugabe wasn’t made to apologise for his equally irresponsible, vulgar response to Zulu. He called her an “idiotic street woman”. Whatever Mugabe believes, Zulu is a senior diplomat who should not be called the things that Mugabe mouthed.

She may speak out of turn, or get a few other things wrong, as do many other senior politicians across the globe. But that is no licence for a man desperately clinging to power to call her an “idiotic street woman”.

It is not just Mugabe’s contempt of women, and Zulu specifically, that is an issue. And I accept that he is in the middle of an election and, with millions of Zimbabweans finding refuge around the globe because of the way the economy is mismanaged, his allure is deserting him.

And his age may not assist. Turning to vulgarity seems natural. But calling Zulu a street woman is plainly untrue, illogical and wholly unnecessary.

My issue is that Mugabe’s disrespect for Zulu is an affront to all of us. An apology should have been demanded from him, too. The intemperate language used shows that Mugabe was deliberately vulgar, disrespectful and wanted to show Pretoria the proverbial middle finger. Allowing him to get away with it should be unacceptable.

It can’t be that Zulu’s wrongs justify Mugabe’s insults. The question is: Why did we let him get away with it? Even in the Presidency’s statement, there is no reference to Mugabe’s own wrongs. It is as if he is the only one wronged. It is a great pity. Our government didn’t just let Zulu down, her foot in the mouth notwithstanding. It let all of us down.

There is a difference between being good people and falling over ourselves to show we are neighbourly, and just allowing truant neighbours to ride roughshod over us.

What is worse, when we, as a country, don’t assert ourselves, we become fodder. Insults and ridicule come thick and fast.

Expectedly, the apology we gave to Mugabe and our reticence on his wrongs emboldened Mugabe to tell us this week: “We (Zimbabweans) have built schools, our children are educated. We are being admired that we have the best literacy rate in Africa at 91 percent. Even South Africa tinoikunda (We are better than South Africa), Equatorial Guinea is in second place at 86 percent.”

True, that. We can’t, and shouldn’t, hold it against Zimbabwe for the attention they are paying to their education system. We all should. And DA leader Helen Zille was right to say that teachers’ union Sadtu is our biggest problem. But Mugabe’s argument has several omissions that undermine it. Zimbabwe has been free, with the word used loosely, for 33 years. And the size of the country does matter.

The 12 million Zimbabweans who remain there account for only, say, the population of Gauteng, using our last census. Even Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga would be the darling of all if our population size was Zimbabwe’s.

It would be wrong to leave Mugabe’s attack on Zulu to “feminists” because it is a “women’s issue”. He might get the nod for standing up to Britain and telling the West off, but Mugabe’s insults deserve our collective condemnation.

* Makhudu Sefara is the editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak

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