I first met President Robert Mugabe at the airport in Maputo, Mozambique when he had just been released from prison in 1974. He was with Mr Joshua Nkomo and they were on their way to Geneva where negotiations were taking place ahead of Lancaster House.
I remember that a newspaper reporter was asking him who would lead Zanu as there was the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole. He said the organisation, Zanu, would decide and that he was a cadre of the movement and would abide by any decision.
He came across as a clear thinker and very astute. He gave a very good impression.
I saw him a number of times in Mozambique in meetings after that, while I was still in exile and up until the dawn of our own freedom in 1994 and beyond.
We have enjoyed a good working relationship since South Africa’s liberation as well.
We regard him as an elder statesman in our region and continent who is always ready to provide guidance and leadership when called upon to do so.
I can define my relationship with President Mugabe as being fraternal, brotherly, comradely and of extreme importance to both South Africa and Zimbabwe, the region and Africa as a whole.
Since I became the President of the Republic of South Africa, we have been hard at work to assist Zimbabwe overcome recent challenges.
We appreciated the opportunity to participate as a sister country and neighbour.
The people of Zimbabwe and the people of South Africa share a long common brotherhood and sisterhood.
Many Zimbabweans today can trace their origins to South Africa. Many people from Zimbabwe share bonds of common lineage with the people of South Africa.
That is why in many parts of Zimbabwe we can find people with surnames like Zulu, Khumalo, Sithole and so on, which are also common surnames in South Africa.
Between Zimbabwe and South Africa, we even share the same names for historic places like Bulawayo.
Our history and struggles were both linked and intertwined as our people suffered from British colonialism.
This year, the University of Fort Hare celebrates its 100th Anniversary as an institution that has produced leaders for both our countries, in Presidents Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe and many other heroes who studied there.
We look forward to hosting President Mugabe for the Fort Hare centenary on May 20.
It will be quite an honour.
It is due to those historical ties that the people of Zimbabwe and the people of South Africa shared common goals when it related to their liberation struggles.
You will remember that when the ANC was formed in 1912, it also had representatives from many countries within the Sadc region.
Our people have worked together for many years in South African mines, where they also shared the bonds of struggle.
When the ANC was banned and formed Umkhonto we Sizwe, one of its first major operations – the Wankie-Sipolilo Campaign of 1967, led by the Luthuli Detachment – was undertaken together with our comrades-in-arms from Zimbabwe; MK and Zipra who fought together side-by-side during that campaign.
When Zimbabwe gained its Independence in 1980, it was a significant step forward in our struggle in South Africa, same as it was when Mozambique and Angola gained their independence in 1974 and 1975, respectively.
The victory for African majority rule in Zimbabwe was a huge boost for our struggle in South Africa as well as in Namibia.
Zimbabwe’s Independence inspired many of our people to join and to advance the struggle, and gave us hope that our own liberation was also imminent.
The liberation of Zimbabwe also meant that the South African apartheid regime had to contend with one more hostile state at its borders.
Many of our MK soldiers could now pass through Zimbabwe as a liberated zone, and carry out their underground activities.
As the ANC and the people of South Africa, we greatly benefited from the leadership provided by President Robert Mugabe and many other African Heads of State, including Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Samora Machel and Jose Eduardo dos Santos.
Especially when President Mugabe was the leader of the Frontline States, he was instrumental in condemning apartheid and supported our calls for the isolation of the apartheid regime internationally.
From the onset of her liberation in 1980, Zimbabwe joined other countries in the region, playing a critical role in the fight against apartheid.
It was instrumental in the formation of the Frontline States (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola, Botswana and Lesotho) and was a founding member of the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference, which later evolved into the Southern African Development Community (Sadc).
Zimbabwe holds a special place in the hearts of many South Africans.
It is here that leaders of the African continent held an important meeting that adopted a blueprint document, the Harare Declaration, which outlined conditions for negotiations in South Africa, opened a path for true negotiations and ultimately led to free and fair elections in a democratic South Africa in 1994.
One of our national heroes, Mr Joe Nzingo Gqabi, who was a representative of the ANC in Zimbabwe, was assassinated on Zimbabwean soil on July 31, 1981.
He was given a State funeral by the Zimbabwean Government and reburied in our country in 2004 after our liberation.
South Africa will be eternally grateful for the role that leaders and people of the Frontline States played in its liberation.
When we discuss the struggle for liberation in Southern Africa and in our own two countries, it has been most remarkable.
President Mugabe took a decision that Zimbabwe would support the struggle for liberation in South Africa and played a key role in the Frontline States. We really appreciate that.
The Zimbabweans under his leadership always found ways to provide support.
South Africa and Zimbabwe enjoy warm and cordial relations, based on mutual respect and co-operation for the benefit of our two countries.
These bilateral relations were formalised in 1994 when South Africa achieved her liberation.
Structured co-operation took place through the Joint Commission for Co-operation (JCC) which was established in 1995, and the Joint Permanent Commission on Defence and Security (JPCDS) established in 2005.
We have over 35 memoranda of understanding and agreements that have been signed between the two countries, and a Bi-National Commission Agreement signed during President Mugabe’s State visit to South Africa in April 2015 has elevated the relations to a Heads of State level.
Zimbabwe is among South Africa’s top trading partners on the continent and during 2015, South Africa’s exports to Zimbabwe amounted to R25,6 billion while imports were recorded to be R4,3 billion.
Sadc, AU Chairmanship
As Chair of both Sadc and the African Union, President Mugabe’s tenure came at a difficult time when Africa was faced with a number of challenges.
Among others, he led initiatives and processes aimed at regional peace and security as well as economic development and integration for the entire African continent.
President Mugabe executed his responsibilities very well with dignity and honour.
He proved himself to be an elder statesman and provided keen leadership at all times in both the AU and Sadc.
His intervention to promote industrialisation within Sadc has been warmly welcomed by all of us as a step in the right direction.
Under the auspices of the AU Peace and Security Council, there has been focused involvement in South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, the Sahel region and West Africa; through a Multilateral Framework anchored on promoting the approach of working together with all stakeholders, and this is in line with South Africa’s foreign policy principles.
Regionally, in Sadc, political conflicts in Madagascar and Lesotho, although not armed conflicts, are also being managed through multilateral platforms such as the Sadc Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation.
The multilateral approach can contribute to the ultimate resolution.
(President Mugabe’s) vast knowledge, experience and involvement in politics in Africa and the world at large makes him resourceful.
There is so much to learn from him and the leaders of his generation who stood up, risked their own lives, defeated colonialism and contributed to the liberation of the region and Africa. President Mugabe is like a walking encyclopaedia and historical archive for our region and continent.
I have had a lot of memorable moments with him as current President of the Republic of South Africa, but I have had even more meetings with him when I was Deputy President of the Republic.
Generally, some of the memorable moments occur when President Mugabe speaks in public.
He is always able to articulate the position of the previously colonialised masses eloquently and with unmatched vigour.
His term as African Union Chairperson has been one of the key milestones. He reminded the leadership of the continent and the African peoples what colonialism was all about and the legacy that we are working to reverse decades later – of inequality and poverty.
It is easy to forget this, so his contribution has helped to remind us what Africa went through, what Africa has done to liberate herself and what else must be done to undo the damage.
His final address as the Chairperson of the AU last month captured our views, that we mean business when we say the United Nations, especially the UN Security Council, must be representative of other regions, especially Africa.
It was a very important intervention at this point in our history and it was well articulated, too.