Mbeki gets tough with Mugabe over Zimbabwe talks

Mugabe and Tsvangirai meet neighbouring leaders as mounting crisis cracks traditional African solidarity
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The Independent Online

Zimbabwe's political rivals resumed power-sharing talks yesterday on the sidelines of a regional free-trade summit in Johannesburg with pressure mounting to find a way to end the country's political crisis. And President Robert Mugabe, who is still refusing to make the concessions necessary to achieving an agreement with the opposition, faced protesters from South African unions – a sign that his intransigence is losing him former friends.

On the eve of the summit, Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, met key southern African leaders in Johannesburg. An aide, George Sibotshiwe, said Mr Tsvangirai was briefing them on talks aimed at forming a transitional unity government being mediated by the South African President, Thabo Mbeki. Mr Mbeki takes over the rotating chair of the South African Development Community (SADC) at the summit.

In a departure from his usual anodyn words on the subject, Mr Mbeki yesterday said appealed for an immediate settlement between Zimbabwe's leaders "to extricate the masses of the people from the dire straits in which they find themselves...We must over this weekend putr Zimbabwe on the right road." Mr Mugabe did not flinch.

The rhetoric on both sides has sharpened in recent days. On Thursday, officials at Harare airport briefly confiscated the passports of Mr Tsvangirai and two of his top aides, delaying their departure for South Africa by a day. Mr Tsvangirai's party said such "antics" called Mr Mugabe's commitment to a negotiated settlement into question, and said SADC, the African Union and the broader international community should "take a strong position against Mugabe".

Mr Tsvangirai beat Mr Mugabe in presidential elections on 29 March, and has insisted that any power-sharing agreement recognise that result. Months of political crisis reached a head with the 27 June run-off presidential vote, which saw Mr Mugabe win after Mr Tsvangirai withdrew over attacks on his followers. The poll was condemned around the world and criticised by regional election observers.

Three days of marathon discussions last week between Mr Mugabe, the main Movement for Democratic Change leader Mr Tsvangirai, and the breakaway MDC faction leader, Arthur Mutambara, ended after Mr Tsvangirai refused to agree to a proposed power-sharing deal. Mr Mbeki has said he remains confident a quick resolution is still possible, raising hopes that an end to the impasse can be found at the summit.

Botswana's president, Seretse Khama Ian Khama, is boycotting the SADC summit to protest against Mr Mugabe's participation. His country has taken the toughest stand among Zimbabwe's neighbours. All of them fear the consequences if its political stalemate coupled with economic decline.

Millions of Zimbabweans have already fled across the country's borders to escape the world's highest inflation rate of 2.2 million per cent, widespread unemployment, and chronic shortages of food and fuel. Botswana said that with power-sharing negotiations still under way, "the authorities in Harare... should not be represented at the political level at any SADC summit as that would be equal to giving them legitimacy".

Mr Mugabe, who has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980, is accused of jailing and killing opponents to hold on to his office. The mounting crisis has cracked the traditional solidarity of African leaders. Kenya, Liberia and Zambia have condemned Mr Mugabe's administration.

In the past, Mr Mugabe has been cheered by ordinary South Africans who embraced his fiery anti-colonial rhetoric. But this weekend the powerful leftist Congress of South African Trade Unions was joining labour and human rights groups from across the region in an anti-Mugabe protest march at the summit.