South African President Jacob Zuma is said to have sidestepped the issue of Western sanctions against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and others in his ZANU-PF party when he met with U.S. President Barack Obama this week, aiming to defuse tension with the Movement for Democratic Change formation led by Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
Mr. Zuma has been mending fences with the MDC following hostile comments about the party by Youth Chairman Julius Malema of Mr. Zuma's ruling African National Congress. Malema denigrated the MDC during a recent visit to Harare and upon returning to South Africa told reporters that the ANC firmly backs ZANU-PF as a liberation party.
Mr. Zuma was quick to repudiate those comments, but they nonetheless undermined his standing as a mediator in the troubled Zimbabwean power-sharing government for the Southern African Development Community.
Mr. Zuma has publicly called for Western sanctions to be lifted - during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and trips to Britain and Uganda this year. But when meeting Mr. Obama this week in Washington ahead of the nuclear security summit, reports on their conversation did not mention sanctions.
Sources in Pretoria told VOA that this was a deliberate omission by Mr. Zuma aiming to dispel any notion that he was lined up with Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF, for whom sanctions are a major talking point.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation reported that Mr. Zuma and Mr. Obama agreed that it is up to the Zimbabweans to end their political crisis.
MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said his party sent a strong protest letter to ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe taking exception to Malema's remarks.
Chamisa said: "Malema's utterances complicate the negotiations process. The MDC wants to understand if there is a distinction between ANC policy and the outbursts of this young person."
The ANC has yet to respond officially, but to defuse the tension Mr. Zuma publicly reprimanded Malema in comments to reporters on Saturday. But Malema said he had Mr Zuma’s backing when he left for Harare and refused to retract his comments.
"President Zuma, when I was going to Zimbabwe said I must pass my regards to Mugabe. I did that," Malema declared. "We had blessings from President Zuma to go ... I was never told the Youth League must never, ever relate with ZANU-PF Youth or ZANU-PF."
Political analyst Charles Mangongera said Malema has put President Zuma in a bind because if he pushes for the lifting of Western sanctions this will reinforce any perception that he is more attentive to the concerns of President Mugabe at the MDC's expense.