July 10, 2003

Mugabe makes overtures to the opposition

Emissaries from Zimbabwe's ruling party, and South Africa, have approached the opposition in recent days about restarting talks to end the nation's political and economic crisis, the opposition said on Thursday. In the latest overture, a Roman Catholic priest linked to the ruling party visited Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai on Wednesday, July 9, just hours before US President George Bush and South African President Thabo Mbeki discussed the crisis, opposition officials said. Father Fidelis Mukonori, used as a Mugabe emissary in the past, wanted to know the opposition's terms for restarting talks and whether any progress could be made to bring the two sides to the negotiating table. He met with Tsvangirai just two hours before Mbeki told Bush the two Zimbabwe parties had begun talks to end the nation's crisis. Tsvangirai said that claim was "patently false and mischievous".

Responding to Mbeki's claim, Tsvangirai said emissaries from churches, civic groups and the South African government were shuttling between the parties, but no talks were under way. "So far, none of these efforts has succeeded," Tsvangirai said. Previous talks broke down because of the dispute over Mugabe's narrow victory in last year's disputed elections and demands that the opposition drop a court challenge to the poll. Addressing supporters in recent weeks, Mugabe has again insisted the opposition recognise his election and drop the case before he would meet with them. The opposition has refused and demanded unconditional talks. Tsvangirai said he was encouraged Bush and Mbeki mentioned the urgent need to address the political crisis in Zimbabwe. "Significantly, we note that President Bush said that they share the same objective to restore democracy, peace, and peoples' freedoms to Zimbabwe," he said.

The state-controlled Herald newspaper, a government mouthpiece, said on Thursday Bush "snubbed" the Zimbabwe opposition by saying he was "of one mind" with Mbeki on Zimbabwe. The opposition has described Mbeki as a "dishonest broker" who failed to use the leverage of Zimbabwe's most powerful neighbour to pressure Mugabe to negotiate democratic reform. Meanwhile, the Information Ministry described Bush's statement on Zimbabwe after his meeting with Mbeki as "a loud climb down" after both Bush and US Secretary of State Colin Powell had called for regime change here. In a statement, the ministry said Bush had been misled on conditions in Zimbabwe and "now leaves the region better enlightened on the issues at stake". Bush retaliated later on Thursday, slamming Zimbabwe's "bad governance". Bush said, after meeting Botswana's President Festus Mogae, that he would continue to speak out for democracy in Zimbabwe. "e expect there to be democracy in Zimbabwe, in order for the people of that country to advance," Bush said in the capital of Botswana, a country viewed by Washington as a rare African example of good governance. It's a shame that the (Zimbabwean) economy has gotten so weak and soft. It is a shame for Botswana, it's a shame for southern Africa, and that the weakness in the economy is directly attributable to bad governance. Therefore we will continue to speak out for democracy in Zimbabwe," Bush added, on the third leg of a five-nation African tour.

The opposition blames Mugabe for plunging the economy into its worst crisis, with 70% unemployment and acute shortages of food, gasoline and medicine. Official inflation has soared to more than 300%, but a thriving black market in food and fuel has led to inflation estimates of about 600%. The official currency exchange rate is Z$824 to the $1, but the black market exchange is as much as Z$2 700-$1. A state programme to seize thousands of white-owned farms for redistribution to black farmers has crippled the agriculture-based economy in the past three years. Investment and foreign aid has dried up in protest of human rights abuses and last year's tainted presidential elections. (Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg)

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