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Mbeki Struggling to Bridge Political Chasm

He claims progress in mediation between Mugabe and opposition, but analysts say little has been achieved.
By IWPR Srdan
South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki last week met both leaders of the divided Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, and President Robert Mugabe in Harare in what was seen as a bid to inject a sense of urgency into negotiations which have been going on since May.



Symbolically, however, Mbeki met the negotiating parties on November 22 separately – Mugabe at State House and the two MDC leaders at the South African ambassador’s residence. It was not clear whether Mbeki has made any headway in bridging the chasm between the ruling ZANU-PF and the MDC factions led by Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, whose party split in October 2005.



Mbeki was mandated in March by leaders of the regional Southern African Development Community, SADC, to mediate between ZANU-PF and the MDC to end Zimbabwe’s eight-year crisis, which has seen inflation shooting to close to 15,000 per cent and the country’s gross domestic product declining by half.



Asked about the prospects of the talks after meeting both sides of the political divide, Mbeki predictably said he was “very confident” they would succeed.



“The process has been going on very well,” he said. “I came to Harare so that we can reflect where we are now and give my own perspective.” He said he wanted to brief the leaders of both ZANU-PF and the MDC on progress.



But analysts said next to nothing had been achieved since the talks began in May because the opposition was fragmented while the ruling party refuses to compromise. They said Mbeki, who stopped over in Harare on his way to the Commonwealth Heads of

Government Meeting, CHOGM, which ran in Uganda over the weekend, wanted to demonstrate to the SADC leaders at the meeting that he was making progress in the talks.



They said there was growing pressure from Britain for an expansion of the negotiating forum to include more people than just Mbeki, who is seen as deferring too much to Mugabe.



“It was a fine gesture by Mbeki to stop by. It gives him the courage to tell his peers that he is the point man on Zimbabwe’s crisis, but in terms of the talks there is nothing of substance to show,” said a Harare political analyst who did not want to be named.



He pointed out that the MDC had supported ZANU-PF in passing Constitutional Amendment No 18 last month to synchronise presidential and parliamentary elections set for early next year, but there had been no tangible concessions by the ruling party. Instead, he said, politically motivated violence against MDC activists had escalated, despite the acquittal of 56 opposition supporters who had been accused of conducting petrol-bombings across the country.



The MDC’s key demands at the talks include an end to political violence, electoral law reforms, a new constitution, a repeal of repressive laws such as the Public Order and Security Act, POSA, and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, AIPPA, all of which, it alleges, hinder its operations.



The opposition is also demanding free and impartial access to the public media and the sole public broadcaster which is used as an organ of the ruling party. So far the ruling party’s negotiators, Legal Affairs Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Labour Minister Nicholas Goche, have only made promises to review POSA and AIPPA but nothing has been done.



Mugabe has flatly rejected the idea of a new constitution before the elections. The two sides are also still haggling over whether the date for the elections should be moved from March to June to give the opposition time to campaign.



The chief negotiator for the Tsvangirai MDC faction, secretary-general Tendai Biti, said they had full confidence in Mbeki as mediator in the talks. “We believe he is an honest and genuine facilitator concerned about the suffering of fellow Africans,” Biti told journalists after their meeting with Mbeki.



But there is considerable public frustration that the process has been taking too long without any major breakthroughs on the MDC’s key demands. This has been cited as the major bone of contention which caused this month’s clashes in the Tsvangirai MDC faction after the head of the MDC Women’s Assembly requested that they be briefed on “progress in the talks”.



The analyst said whatever Mbeki was going to tell SADC leaders in Uganda was a dress rehearsal for the Africa-European Union summit in Portugal in early December, which has generated bitter exchanges between the two trading blocs over Mugabe’s attendance.



British prime minister Gordon Brown has threatened to boycott the summit if the Zimbabwean leader attends, a position which has driven a wedge between EU members themselves, with some saying Mugabe should be confronted face-to-face and others saying his presence would undermine the main purpose of the summit, which is to discuss trade.



A number of African leaders have said Africa is indivisible and they will therefore boycott the Lisbon summit if Mugabe is not invited. Mugabe has already been invited.

The EU and the US have imposed travel restrictions on Mugabe and his cronies for alleged human rights violations and for destroying the once vibrant economy of the former British colony.



Millions of Zimbabweans have fled the country since 2000, when Mugabe launched a violent land reform programme to drive out white commercial farmers. Those Zimbabweans who remain mostly depend on donor food aid or money sent by relatives living in other Southern African countries, or in Britain.



“Mbeki is under pressure to show fellow African leaders that there is progress on the Zimbabwean crisis to justify why they should sacrifice the interests of their countries for a common cause,” said the political analyst. “At the same time Africans as a whole are eager to demonstrate to the rest of the world that they can resolve their own problems without external interference. So whether there is really progress or not remains as secretive as the talks themselves.”



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

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