South Africa's ruling African National Congress has split publicly over the still-undeclared presidential election result in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe is accused of defying the verdict of his own voters.
Leading ANC figures have openly contradicted President Thabo Mbeki, who declared after meeting Mr Mugabe in Harare last weekend that there was "no crisis" in Zimbabwe. A top ANC official, Matthews Phosa – a close ally of the ANC leader Jacob Zuma – said yesterday that a crisis was "evident" in South Africa's northern neighbour. The party's national working committee, in a snub to the president, resolved to open direct contact with Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to promote dialogue.
The deadlock in Zimbabwe has caused frustration in South Africa with Mr Mbeki's brand of "quiet diplomacy" to boil over. His critics believe the president's uncritical support of Mr Mugabe is allowing the 84-year-old autocrat to prepare a campaign to overturn the results of both the parliamentary elections, in which Zanu-PF lost its majority, and the presidential poll, where the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai is believed by independent monitors to have come within 1 per cent of an overall majority.
The raging controversy in South Africa's ruling circles contrasted with apparent apathy on the streets of Harare yesterday, where Mr Tsvangirai's call for a national "stay-away" was all but ignored. The opposition blamed lack of publicity and Zimbabwe's economic collapse, which makes it difficult for people to forego a day's income.
Zimbabweans are likely to hope instead that South Africa, the regional power, will at last put effective pressure on Mr Mugabe. Warning that the "dire" situation in Zimbabwe was having negative consequences for the whole of southern Africa, the top ANC committee said it would be "undemocratic and unprecedented" for Mr Mugabe to hold a run-off vote without first announcing the result of the 29 March presidential poll.
Mr Phosa, the ANC treasurer, said the continuing failure to release results was causing uncertainty that could "lead to explosions", adding: "We don't want to prophesise disaster, we don't want disaster, we think pre-emptive action should be taken to avoid disaster."
Mr Tsvangirai is in South Africa, having remained abroad since the election amid hints that he fears for his life if he returns to Zimbabwe. He has been criticised by some in the opposition for failing to appear more "presidential" since the poll, and for being unrealistic in demanding that an emergency regional summit in Zambia last weekend recognise him immediately as Zimbabwe's president.
In Harare yesterday, it was soon evident that Mr Tsvangirai's "stay-away" call had been a flop. There was some tension early in the day in the city centre, where riot police raced down streets, chanting and beating their batons against the sides of their trucks. But most shops and banks were open, apart from some near the MDC headquarters, and those with jobs were pouring in from the "high-density suburbs" – the euphemistic name for the former segregated townships, which are MDC strongholds.
Although there was the hulk of a burnt-out bus on the outskirts, and residents in one area reported some stoning of minibuses in an effort to stop commuters heading for work, the police soon dismantled roadblocks and scaled down their presence as it became clear there was no opposition to deal with. Many arriving for work said they knew nothing of the strike call – Mr Mugabe's government keeps tight control of the media.
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