South African President Jacob Zuma has dumped his country’s traditional “quiet diplomacy” and is instead going for full “confrontation” with President Robert Mugabe to force free and fair elections in Zimbabwe, a cabinet source has said.

Ebrahim Ebrahim, the South African Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation said Zuma, who was mandated by Sadc to mediate and ensure credible polls in Zimbabwe, was taking a hard-line stance because regional leaders could no longer stomach Harare’s status quo.

He was speaking to South African newspaper, The Sunday Independent at the weekend. The sensational claims confirm the view that Zuma, the SADC-appointed facilitator to the Zimbabwe crisis wants a quick solution to the ongoing wrangling in government.

“There has been notable difference but it is true that… even as president of ANC, President Zuma began to take a harder line on Zimbabwe and he continued as president of the country to do so.”

“South Africa has been given the responsibility of taking the situation in hand. Now it is open… I will not say condemnation but confrontation. President Zuma is prepared to have open confrontation with Mugabe,” said Ebrahim.

Ebrahim is a senior political and economic advisor to Zuma and sits on the powerful ANC National Executive Committee.

He has also chaired the parliamentary foreign Zuma threatens Mugabe affairs committee. ANC’s top brass partly decides the country’s foreign policy.

His statements to the Sunday Independent this week are significant as they highlight how South Africa and SADC have shifted policy on Zimbabwe since former mediator and Zuma’s predecessor Thabo Mbeki was booted out in 2008.

Mbeki was seen by many observers as ineffective because of his closeness to and bias towards Mugabe.

The statements also show how the SADC summit set for Angola mid-next month could be explosive as regional leaders battle Mugabe’s intransigence. Mugabe is likely to continue pushing for elections this year as demanded by his party.

Welshman Ncube, leader of the breakaway MDC formation, told a public meeting last week that SADC leaders had threatened to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe should Mugabe proceed with a unilateral call for elections this year.

South Africa has largely followed a policy of quiet diplomacy, which started during Mbeki’s tenure, on dealing with the Zimbabwean crisis. However under Zuma, the country has gradually shifted its approach with Zuma taking a measured but firm approach to the crisis.

The shift was first noticed at the Zambia SADC Troika Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation meeting in Livingstone, Zambia end of March this year.

Zuma presented a scathing report which rebuked Mugabe for refusing to implement the GPA at the meeting, a position endorsed by his regional peers.

Zuma warned that Zimbabwe risked international intervention if the political crisis in the country continued.

This stance was reinforced at the last SADC summit in Johannesburg where, according to media reports, Zuma and Mugabe openly clashed.

Ebrahim said Zuma believed Zimbabwe’s prolonged crisis was draining SADC and the only possible way of bringing it to an end was by confronting a belligerent Mugabe to force him to play by the power sharing agreement he signed with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in 2008.

SADC was also losing patience hence the tough stance, Ebrahim said.

“The difference now is that SADC and our president are saying (to Mugabe) this status cannot continue, you have to implement your own agreement and accept free and fair elections under the new constitution,” said Ebrahim, adding that although the country’s three political parties agreed to an agreement under Mbeki, “Mugabe is saying they can have elections under the old Lancaster House constitution.”

Mugabe has threatened to call for elections regardless of whether the country’s new constitution has been completed.

A new constitution is a pre-condition for polls in Zimbabwe’s as agreed in the power sharing agreement.

Zuma has openly criticised Mugabe before.

During his tenure as ANC president in 2008 before he took over the position of the presidency of Africa’s biggest economy, he described the disputed and violent June 2008 elections as “suspicious.”

“We cannot agree with ZANU PF. We cannot agree with them on values. We fought for the right of people to vote, we fought for democracy,” Zuma said at an ANC dinner in July 2008. He rebuked Mugabe for refusing to step down after losing the March 2008 election to Tsvangirai.

In December 2007, Zuma had also criticised Mbeki for his soft approach on Zimbabwe.

“It is even more tragic that other world leaders who witness repression pretend it is not happening, or is exaggerated. When history eventually deals with the dictators, those who stood by and watched should also bear the consequences. A shameful quality of the modern world is to turn away from injustice and ignore the hardships of others,” said Zuma at the time.

ANC is historically a natural ally of ZANU PF but has recently been critical of its erstwhile ally because of the pressure from its ANC Youth League, South African Communist Party and Congress of Southern African Trade Unions allies.

It is from these organisations that Zuma derives much of his support. Zuma met UK Prime Minister David Cameroon met on Monday at his Union Building in Pretoria where the two discussed the Libyan and Zimbabwean crisis.

Zuma expressed happiness with the progress in Zimbabwe while Cameroon said he was willing to look into the issue of sanctions but would only do so if agreed reforms were implemented.

Meanwhile, ZANU PF says the 87-year-old leader will table the sanctions issue at the Angola SADC summit.

The party’s spokesperson, Rugare Gumbo said 2,2 million Zimbabweans had signed a petition to be tabled at the meeting and presented at other international forums such as the AU and UN meetings.

It could not be established how ZANU PF hopes to do it given that the issue of sanctions is already being dealt with by SADC.