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Mbeki Poll Remarks Provoke Storm

South African president’s election assessment leaves Zimbabwean opposition fuming.
By IWPR Srdan

Thabo Mbeki’s prediction that Zimbabwe’s parliamentary election will be democratic has come under widespread condemnation by opposition parties and political analysts in Zimbabwe.


"I have no reason to think that anybody in Zimbabwe will act in a way that will militate against the [Zimbabwe] elections being free and fair," the South African president recently told reporters in a statement on the steps of the South African Parliament in Cape Town.


His early verdict on the even-handedness of the election was reinforced by his labour minister, Membathisi Mdladlana, heading the South African government observer team, who said on arrival in Zimbabwe that everything was calm and the ballot would be conducted properly.


Reacting to the subsequent storm of controversy, Mdladlana said too many people had already concluded that elections in Zimbabwe would not be free and fair. "Those people are a problem and a nuisance," he said. "But nobody attacks them. Some of us are fed up with their lies."


University of Zimbabwe lawyer Dr Lovemore Madhuku, a pro-democracy activist who heads the National Constitutional Assembly, a pressure group campaigning for a new democratic constitution, said Mbeki’s statement and other actions by the South African head of state clearly confirm that he is eager to airbrush what will be a tainted election result.


“It’s clear now Mbeki wants to endorse the election result which he knows will be in favour of ZANU PF,” he said. “He is trying hard to secure legitimacy for (Zimbabwean President Robert) Mugabe’s rule.


“That is why he was so anxious to bring the MDC (opposition Movement for Democratic Change) back to the electoral process after it threatened to boycott the election. Now that the MDC is in the poll he wants to use it to say the election will be a legitimate expression of Zimbabweans’ popular will.”


While there are widespread complaints from many organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, that Mugabe is continuing to violate the guidelines set by the 14-member Southern African Development Community, SADC, for a free and fair election, Mbeki said in a recent interview with the Financial Times of London that in his view Zimbabwe was complying fully with the guidelines.


"I don't know what ... has happened in Zimbabwe that is in violation of the SADC protocol, because as I know things like the independent electoral commission, things like access to the public media, things like the absence of violence and intimidation, those matters have been addressed," he told the Financial Times.


“I think Mbeki jumped the gun and shot himself in the foot,” said Professor Brian Raftopoulos, Professor of Politics at the University of Zimbabwe and chairperson of another pro-democracy pressure group, Crisis in Zimbabwe. “He has done his reputation enormous damage because the situation in Zimbabwe has not changed.”


Asked for his comment on Mbeki’s advance verdict, MDC candidate Njabiliso Mguni in the western constituency of Lupane, where hundreds of people were slaughtered in 1983 by Mugabe’s special North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, said, “Oh well, we Zimbabweans know all about Mbeki by now. We can’t count on him. Look what he said about HIV/AIDS. Either he is foolish or he simply wants to be provocative.”


For many years Mbeki publicly denied that AIDS was caused by the HIV virus. To this day he refuses to say whether HIV and AIDS are linked.


The MDC’s national spokesman, Paul Themba Nyathi, said, “Mbeki’s utterances are prejudicial not just to the need for a free and fair election, but also to the interests of the people of Zimbabwe. We continue to have our strategic meetings and rallies disrupted by ZANU PF supporters and a partisan police force, to have intimidation, selective application of the law, problems with a deeply flawed voters’ roll and limited media coverage.


“We still have restrictive legislation, biased electoral authorities and abuse of other parties and their supporters on state television. All these issues do not augur well for a free and fair election. Therefore the statement by President Mbeki was very unfortunate.”


The MDC’s economic affairs spokesman, Eddie Cross, said Mbeki doesn’t want an MDC victory in Zimbabwe because the party has its origin in the trade union movement, and the South African president fears his own trade unionists, “He fears that an MDC victory would have serious implications for the ANC [South Africa’s ruling African National Congress] itself. This is a very dangerous game for South Africa.”


Cross said Mbeki is, however, merely bolstering his own trade union movement, Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions), which has condemned the electoral process in Zimbabwe and been banned from sending a team to observe the polls, “In doing so he is in fact strengthening the very forces he fears in South Africa itself and perhaps hastening the day when a new democratic movement on the left will emerge to challenge the ANC for supremacy in South Africa.”


Chipo Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.