South Africa and Zimbabwe were poles apart on Thursday over the cholera crisis that has claimed almost 800 lives in the latter nation.
Robert Mugabe announced that the epidemic in his country was over but South African officials declared a disaster on their side of the border as a result of the spreading disease that the World Health Organisation says is getting worse.
The cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe has triggered fresh demands from across the world for Mr Mugabe, the president, to either hand over real power to Morgan Tsvangirai, his opposition rival, or to stand down.
In spite of some tougher talk from South Africa – the regional power that is under increasing international pressure to act against the Mugabe regime – there have been few signs of toughening policy. Officials of the ruling African National Congress insist that the stalled power-sharing agreement in Harare, signed in September, is the only option, despite evidence that it cannot work.
They see Mr Tsvangirai as the bigger obstacle to achieving it. One senior ANC leader told the Financial Times that he was “astonished” by Mr Tsvangirai’s recent refusal to accept a proposal that would leave Mr Mugabe in control of the military and give shared responsibility for the police.
“They see it as bizarre and perverse that Tsvangirai isn’t prepared to compromise,” says Tim Hughes, a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) in Cape Town.
This focus on Mr Tsvangirai’s alleged failings, say critics, risks losing sight of the bigger issues raised by Mr Mugabe’s mismanagement of Zimbabwe as it slides ever closer to collapse. “Their foreign policy is losing moral credibility,” says Mr Hughes.
Thus far, the damage to South Africa has been largely to its image, although it has also seen the economic impact of Zimbabweans fleeing across the border. The cholera crisis, however, has illustrated a more tangible threat, as the exodus of refugees fleeing starvation, unemployment and disease swells.
“There are not too many jobs in South Africa at the moment,” says Phandu Skelemani, Botswana’s foreign minister. “With the credit crunch slowly moving south, I don’t think South Africa will be able to absorb this for any length of time.”
In the wake of the palace coup that led to the departure of Thabo Mbeki from the presidency in September, hopes were high that South Africa would change tack.
Jacob Zuma, who earlier seized the ANC leadership from Mr Mbeki and is front runner to become president next year, has repeatedly promised that South Africa will play a more assertive role in Zimbabwe.
Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary-general, seemed to go further on Thursday. He said that a military invasion would not work. Rather, South Africa would “persuade” Mr Mugabe to retire.
But, it was unclear whether this signalled a real change of policy. Mr Mantashe hinted at how difficult persuasion might be, saying the ANC leadership had discussed Mr Mugabe’s reasons for clinging to power – largely that he is afraid of being arrested and charged with war crimes – and concluded there could be no guarantees against this.
Part of the problem, say critics, is that the ANC tends to be unrealistic about the scope for negotiated change because in very different international circumstances it agreed a peaceful transition with the former white minority government.
“They say that we made peace and shared power with the Boers. Why can’t they do the same with Mugabe? There is an inability to grasp the reality of Zimbabwe,” says Eleanor Sisulu, a human rights activist close to the ANC.
South African and Zimbabwean leaders share a view of the world shaped in anti-colonial guerrilla wars. “We are a micrometre away from a criticism of Zimbabwe being seen as a condemnation of a liberation movement, or an absolution of white colonialism,” says Mr Hughes.