When Zimbabwe began sinking into economic collapse and political repression in 2000, South Africa and Britain held starkly different views over how to respond to the crisis. Mr Mbeki favoured a negotiated settlement; Mr Blair wanted Mr Mugabe to go, by force if necessary.
“The problem was, we were speaking from different positions,” said Mr Mbeki, who served as South Africa’s president from 1999 until 2008. “There were other people saying ‘yes indeed there are political problems, economic problems, the best way to solve them is regime change. So Mugabe must go’. This was the difference. So they said ‘Mugabe must go’. But we said ‘Mugabe is part of the solution to this problem’.”
Mr Mbeki recalled an interview given by Lord Guthrie, who was Chief of the Defence Staff and Britain’s most senior soldier throughout Mr Blair’s first government. In 2007, Lord Guthrie disclosed that “people were always trying to get me to look at” toppling Mr Mugabe by force.
He did not say whether these requests had come from the Prime Minister himself. In any event, Lord Guthrie said that his advice was: “Hold hard, you’ll make it worse” – suggesting that the idea was never a serious proposition.
But Mr Mbeki noted: “There is a retired chief of the British armed forces and [he] said that he had to withstand pressure from the then prime minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, who was saying to the chief of the British armed forces, ‘you must work out a military plan so we that can physically remove Robert Mugabe’.”
Mr Mbeki said this came as no surprise. “We knew that, because we had come under the same pressure, and that we need to cooperate in some scheme – it was a regime change scheme – even to the point of using military force, and we said ‘no’,” he said in an interview with al-Jazeera.
Mr Mbeki explained that the idea was rejected on principle because Britain had no right to decide who leads African countries. “You are coming from London, you don’t like Robert Mugabe for whatever reason – people in London don’t like him – and we are going to remove him and we are going to put someone else in his place? Why does it become British responsibility to decide who leads the people of Zimbabwe?” asked Mr Mbeki. “So we said ‘no, let Zimbabweans sit down, let them talk’.”
In 2000 and 2001, Mr Mugabe repeatedly accused Britain of plotting not only to overthrow his regime, but also to re-colonise Zimbabwe. At various points, he claimed that Britain had sent “hit squads” to assassinate his cabinet – and deployed warships to intercept Zimbabwe’s fuel supplies on the high seas.
This became a central pillar of his rhetoric as he tried to rally support against a new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.
State television reported in 2000 that a British invasion force had been deployed in neighbouring Botswana, implausibly claiming that naval flotilla was present in the landlocked Okavango Delta.
But Mr Blair’s memoirs have no mention of Mr Mbeki, or of any planned operation in Zimbabwe – and only fleeting references to Mr Mugabe.
Given that Lord Guthrie declined to look at the idea – and no military preparations appear to have been made during that period – it seems highly unlikely that any British intervention was ever a real possibility.