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Questions Over Reported Progress in Zimbabwe Talks

Observers can see none of the improvements claimed from the negotiations on resolving the long-running political stand-off.
By Joseph Sithole

South African president Thabo Mbeki has once again reported progress in the talks he is mediating between Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition in an attempt to end the country’s eight-year political and economic crisis.

However, analysts say that any headway made in the negotiations brokered by the Southern African Development Community, SADC, is as imperceptible and inaudible as the so-called “quiet diplomacy” Mbeki has used in dealing with President Robert Mugabe.

On January 17, Mbeki met Mugabe for four hours at State House, and then talked separately with both leaders of the divided opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, at the South African embassy in Harare.

The South African leader told journalists after these private meetings that he was satisfied with the commitment of all political leaders to resolving the long-running crisis.

“You cannot doubt the level of commitment of the Zimbabwe leadership to ensuring that the country’s problems are solved,” said Mbeki, standing next to Mugabe, who will be 84 next month.

“This [negotiating process] is work in progress and I must say that there has been very good progress. There is definitely a lot of light.”

Both sides in the negotiations have refused to comment on the content and outcome of their meetings with Mbeki, insisting on the blanket of secrecy they swore to at the start of the SADC-initiated negotiations in April last year.

Earlier in the week, Mbeki told visiting Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern that while a breakthrough was close in the talks, there remained certain “sticking points”.

During the negotiations, the opposition has called for a new constitution, reform of the country’s electoral laws and the right to vote for all Zimbabwean expatriates, as well as an end to political violence and repression before the elections scheduled for March.

After Mugabe categorically rejected introducing a new constitution before the elections, the MDC asked instead for a transitional document designed to ensure free and fair elections.

However, the opposition recently complained that Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party had backtracked on agreements to come up with such a transitional constitution and to postpone the elections to allow reforms to electoral and security laws to take place in advance.

An analyst in Harare said that it was hard to see what progress Mbeki could be referring to.

“Perhaps they know something we don’t know,” said the analyst, who also noted the continuing reports of violence around the country.

“Since they began, the talks have been cloaked in secrecy except for leaks and occasional complaints by the opposition about ZANU-PF’s failure to meet fully its commitments. The progress is as imperceptible as the effects of Mbeki’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ on Mugabe. There is nothing on the ground.”

The MDC also came in for criticism.

Sources close to this week’s talks between Mbeki and the MDC leaders say the opposition “capitulated” without a whimper when they were informed that Mugabe had dismissed their calls for a new constitution and for a delay in holding the elections until June.

Few of the MDC’s other demands have been met by the ruling party. ZANU-PF has so far agreed on only cosmetic amendments to repressive laws such as the Public Order and Security Act, which empowers police to unilaterally ban opposition rallies if they have a reason to believe these might result in violence.

Less than two months before the polls, there is still no sign that government plans to relax its grip on the state media and allow the opposition to campaign freely.

From the look of things, said one observer, the MDC had backed down from its previous militant approach.

“Either they have capitulated or they believe that indeed ZANU-PF can’t beat them in free and fair elections,” he said.

According to this analyst, who did not want to be named, the MDC have drawn encouragement from recent events in Kenya, where violence erupted after the opposition accused the incumbent president Mwai Kibaki of stealing the election.

Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the MDC faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai, recently told a rally in the poor suburb of Dzivaresekwa that there would be a bloodbath worse than that in Kenya if there is a feeling after the March elections that the vote was rigged.

The analyst concluded that the MDC may believe the threat of angry protests will be enough to deter the authorities from vote-rigging in the spring elections.

“They believe ZANU-PF will be loathe to go that route when events in Kenya are still fresh and Mugabe has not got over the tag of illegitimacy which he has worn since his controversial re-election in 2000.”

Meanwhile, the MDC announced demonstrations for January 23 to push for a new constitution and also to test ZANU-PF’s commitment to non-violence.

The opposition movement, which insists it remains committed to the SADC talks, has planned a total of 300 rallies to take place this month, starting with three in the capital Harare at the weekend.

“The march of a million men and women that we intend to hold on January 23, 2008 is a dipstick in an oil tank to gauge the seriousness I have alluded to earlier on,” said Tendai Biti, who is secretary-general of the Tsvangirai faction and is representing it at the Mbeki-led negotiations.

“I have to point out that this intended march is in no way prejudicial to the SADC mediation efforts,” he said. “I have to place it on record that the MDC remains committed to the SADC talks and we remain hopeful that something will come out of that process.”

“This is part of Zimbabwe’s democratisation process,” said Biti.

“Now that we have been in the boardroom [with the ruling party] for this long, we want to take the struggle outside the boardroom and into the streets, where we will gauge whether there was any seriousness and commitment to the SADC dialogue on the part of ZANU-PF.”

Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.

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