South Africa rolled out the red carpet for Robert Mugabe on Wednesday, with President Jacob Zuma welcoming him as “dear brother” in his first official state visit in 20 years.
Contrary to reports in the local media that Mrs Mugabe has been seriously unwell and receiving medical treatment abroad, she appeared in good spirits and chatted to the cabal of South African ministers assembled for the visit.
Mr Mugabe, whose regime was until 2013 the subject of broad European and American sanctions, has until recently been restricted to state visits to countries such as Iran and China amid complaints by the West about his chequered human rights record and electoral fraud allegedly deployed to keep him in power since 1980.
But with the easing of sanctions, Mr Mugabe’s victory in a 2013 election broadly accepted as legitimate and his assuming of the rotating African Union chairmanship, he is being welcomed back into the fold.
Mr Zuma’s predecessor Thabo Mbeki enjoyed a jovial relationship with Mr Mugabe and was criticised for repeatedly overlooking dubious election victories.
Mr Zuma has had more lukewarm relations with the veteran statesman, who has accused him of “taking a back seat” in regional diplomacy. Julius Malema, the outspoken former ANC youth leader, claimed that Mr Zuma made no effort to disguise his “hatred” of Mr Mugabe in party meetings