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President Thabo Mbeki, who has been pilloried over his mediation efforts, has a chance to make his critics eat their words after persuading Zimbabwe's political rivals to sit down and talk.
After months of negative coverage of his kid-gloves approach towards his counterpart Robert Mugabe, Mbeki was able to bask yesterday in headlines that proclaimed him as a minor miracle worker.
With only 10 months before he is due to step down after a decade in charge of South Africa, the stalemate in the Zimbabwean crisis had threatened to push his already plummeting popularity ratings further downwards.
But analysts say a resolution to Zimbabwe's crisis - while far from a foregone conclusion - could dramatically salvage his reputation which once gleamed after his role in bringing peace to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"It is a chance for Mbeki to rescue something from the crash-and-burn image of his presidency as it comes towards the end," said Richard Cornwell, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
"He will be looking for some sort of vindication of his quiet diplomacy which has been so wholly criticised."
The usually impassive Mbeki was all smiles on Monday as he oversaw the signing in Harare of an agreement between Mugabe and opposition leaders Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara paving the way for talks on sharing power after disputed elections.
Tsvangirai has previously called for Mbeki to be axed as mediator but his signature on the agreement marks a recognition that the South African-led process is the only game in town.
Tasked by his regional peers with mediating between Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and the MDC, Mbeki has been widely accused of being biased towards Mugabe. After South Africa recently helped block sanctions against Zimbabwe, the United States could no longer contain its anger with its UN ambassador, accusing Mbeki of "protecting" Mugabe and being "out of touch" with public opinion.
"Give Mbeki his due - he's pulled off a minor miracle," read an editorial in the Times newspaper yesterday, adding that "yesterday ought to have finally brought Mbeki a moment in the sun".
Aubrey Matshiqi, a columnist for Business Day, said there was no doubt that the signing represented a feather in Mbeki's cap though he said a more balanced view of his mediation was needed.
"I think the fact that the two parties have signed a memorandum of understanding is a major achievement," he said.
Matshiqi said a definitive verdict on Mbeki's mediation efforts should only be delivered once it becomes clear whether the dialogue is making progress.
"Today Mbeki is in a much better place than he has been." - Sapa-AFP
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