March 21, 2003

South Africa criticises Commonwealth suspension of Zimbabwe, but also disagrees with land reform there

The Commonwealth's decision to extend Zimbabwe's suspension from its councils for a further nine months was not taken by the Troika appointed to deal with the issue, the South African High Commissioner to London said on Thursday, March 20.

The secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Don McKinnon had announced earlier in the week that the organisation had decided by consensus to keep Zimbabwe's suspension in place until a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Nigeria in December. The Troika consists of the presidents of South Africa and Nigeria and the Australian Prime Minister. High Commissioner Lindiwe Mabuza said in a statement released in Johannesburg that the two African countries had disagreed with Australia on Zimbabwe's continued suspension. She said a division in the Troika became apparent in Abuja, Nigeria in September last year when presidents Thabo Mbeki and Olesegun Obasanjo of Nigeria indicated that they did not have a mandate to impose stronger punitive measures against Zimbabwe. Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, on the other hand, advocated further punitive action.- The initial decision to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth was taken in March last year.

Mabuza said that neither the chairman nor the secretary-general of the Commonwealth had a mandate to extend the suspension. Such a decision could only be taken after consultation with all member states and must be reached by consensus. She said it was important to note that Commonwealth heads who participated in the recent Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia were unanimous in endorsing a decision which was critical of imposing sanctions against Zimbabwe.

Ten African countries that are members of the Commonwealth, also belong to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which reaffirmed the NAM decision at a meeting in Angola in March. Mabuzo said it was therefore important to know which Commonwealth countries were consulted when the decision was taken to extend Zimbabwe's suspension, especially since McKinnon said the decision was based on a "general view" of member countries. She said the South African government remained committed to work with the Commonwealth, the African Union, SADC, the European Union and the United Nations to help Zimbabwe to find a peaceful solution to its political and socio-economic problems.

On Sunday McKinnon acknowledged that there were differing views on the suspension of Zimbabwe. "Some member governments take the view that it is time to lift Zimbabwe's suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth..." he said. "Some others feel that there is no justification for such a step and that there is in fact reason to impose stronger measures." He said the general view was that heads of government wished to review Zimbabwe's position at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Nigeria in December. It was therefore decided that Zimbabwe's current suspension would stay in place until then pending a discussion on the matter.

After the announcement Zimbabwe's government had reacted angrily to the news. The country's High Commissioner to London, Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, was quoted in the media as saying that McKinnon had no authority to issue such a statement. He said there was no way the decision to extend Zimbabwe's suspension could have been based on a consensus among Commonwealth members.

Meanwhile, South African President Thabo said Thursday, March 20, the issue of land reform in Zimbabwe had been handled badly. He had told the Zimbabwe government that it should be pursued in a way that was equitable to all Zimbabweans. "We have seen for some time now that the matter is not being handled correctly. (Botswana) President Festus Mogae and myself have been in Harare and said directly to the government of Zimbabwe, privately and publicly, that it needs to be handled in a way that is not confrontational; in a way that addresses the land needs of both black and white Zimbabweans," Mbeki said. "It is now a matter of how to conclude the situation of land distribution in Zimbabwe; and we continue to discuss it with them. We must establish what remains to be done so we can come to a situation of normalcy in that that country as soon as possible." Mbeki was speaking at a press conference at the end of a three-day State Visit to Botswana. He said the land question in Zimbabwe had been recognised even as part of the Independence negotiations on the Constitution of Zimbabwe. It was recognised at that time as a matter of central importance to the people of Zimbabwe. "Even after that, everyone has continued to recognise the importance of the issue. There is no dispute about it. We need land distribution in Zimbabwe," Mbeki said. (Mmegi/The Reporter, Gaborone; SAPA, Johannesburg)

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