December 19, 2003

South African President visits Zimbabwe

South African President Thabo Mbeki yesterday, December 18, arrived in Zimbabwe for talks with his counterpart Robert Mugabe on the country's political and economic crisis. The one-day visit comes after Zimbabwe pulled out of the Commonwealth earlier this month when member states decided to extend Zimbabwe's suspension. Mr Mbeki has pursued a conciliatory approach towards Mr Mugabe, whose regime has been widely criticised. "Our countries have shared common problems. As they shared the common problems of oppression, they share common problems today," Mr Mbeki said on arrival at Harare international airport. "President Mugabe can assist us to confront the problems we have in South Africa so that we can assist you to solve the problems that face Zimbabwe."

While Mbeki originally had no plans to meet officials from Zimbabwe's opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), according to Presidential spokesman Bheki Khumalo, a 45-minute, unscheduled meeting between the South African President and the leadership of the Movement for Democratic Change took place after the three hours-discussion with Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe's government and opposition were ready to hold "talks about talks" on the crisis in the country – this was the formula thrashed out when Mbeki met with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and other opposition officials in Harare for the first time.

According to Mbeki, he had a commitment from Mugabe to be serious about dialogue. According to the sources, Mbeki told Tsvangirai that he had come to unlock the dialogue between the MDC and the ruling Zanu PF party. He wanted to know whether the opposition would agree to talks. Tsvangirai explained that the MDC had always been ready for dialogue but had doubts about Mugabe's sincerity, after which Mbeki assured him that he had Mugabe's commitment. The meeting then agreed upon a "mechanism" through which Zanu PF's Patrick Chinamasa and the MDC's Welshman Ncube would "design a method and agenda for talks". Chinamasa is the minister of justice and also Zanu PF's secretary for legal affairs. Ncube is the secretary-general of the MDC. The sources said Mbeki did not touch upon issues likely to be on a talks agenda. "Substantive" matters such as a rerun of the presidential election and Mugabe's resignation "did not come up".

South Africa - which has mediated between President Mugabe and his critics - has argued that bringing Zimbabwe back into the international fold is the best way of solving the crisis there. As Khumalo put it, the government would not change its policy towards Zimbabwe: "We think engaging the Zimbabweans rather than excluding them will assist them in finding a solution. What will solve the problem of Zimbabwe is Zanu-PF and MDC working together in finding a solution with the support of South Africa." On the other hand, the former archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, said South Africa was putting its own democracy at risk by failing to speak out against the situation in Zimbabwe. (IRIN / The Star, Johannesburg)

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