Economic interest might motivate China's backing of Zimbabwe's nearly friendless Robert Mugabe, but his only other significant supporter, South African President Thabo Mbeki, is motivated by a fear that if he turns on his neighbour, he will be labelled the George W. Bush of Africa. 'The stakes for South Africa are very high - it is easy enough to make suggestions when you are sitting an ocean away from events, but Zimbabwe is right across the border here,' says former US diplomat John Stremlau, now head of the international relations department at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. In trying to sell his policy of 'quiet diplomacy' to the world, Mr Mbeki has found few are listening, least of all his tyrannical neighbour Mr Mugabe. Frustrating as this is to Mr Mbeki, who has claimed leadership of the African renaissance, the risks of standing up to Mr Mugabe are grave. So high are the stakes that Mr Mbeki would rather put up with the endless criticism from international leaders, and even his own countrymen, than alienate South Africa from a continent already wary of its southernmost state. Mr Mugabe may now be isolated from such past allies as Britain, the US and Australia, but he still enjoys a loyal following throughout Africa. He sent troops to fight on the side of the Congolese government in the country's bloody civil war, for which he is remembered fondly in Kinshasa. Angola, Africa's emerging oil giant, joined Mr Mugabe in the five-year-long campaign and the two countries enjoy close ties as a result. Many still see him as a hero for standing up first to white Rhodesia and now to former colonial master Britain. For South Africa to abandon its 'quiet diplomacy', however ineffective it may appear, would alarm other African states, few of whom do not routinely flout human rights values. If this were to happen, countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Ivory Coast would wonder if they were next in line for censure. Consequently, such countries could freeze out South Africa diplomatically and politically, ending Mr Mbeki's growing influence on the continent. Peace and stability may still be on the distant horizon for much of Africa, but such efforts have already borne fruit for South African companies that now regularly do business the length and breadth of the continent. To continue to compete, they need a diplomatic climate that favours their presence. Some hoped that the latest outrage in Zimbabwe, the mass demolition of shelters that housed hundreds of thousands of urban poor, would force Mr Mbeki to act. At the recent Group of Eight summit, Mr Mbeki's silence on the evictions rang out starkly in contrast to world condemnation. If any had hoped that the deafening chorus of world opinion on the matter would sway Mr Mbeki, they will be disappointed. Publicly Mr Mbeki has said nothing to indicate he is about to change his position. The capture some months ago of a South African spy who tried to recruit senior members of Mr Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party suggests Mr Mbeki is becoming desperate and that attempts are being made to influence events from behind the scenes, without alarming other African leaders. 'The big picture often missed by others, but not Mbeki, is that South Africa's fortunes are tied to Africa itself,' says Professor Stremlau. If Mr Mbeki hopes to secure South Africa's leadership on the continent, his best course may be to stick with 'quiet diplomacy'.