Sunday, August 17, 2008

South African Leaders Gather as Zimbabwe Crisis Looms

By Mike Cohen and Nasreen Seria -Aug. 16 (Bloomberg)

Southern African leaders gathered for a two-day annual summit in Johannesburg today that's been overshadowed by the political stalemate in Zimbabwe.

Botswana President Ian Khama boycotted the meeting of the Southern African Development Community to protest the presence of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, who extended his 28-year reign in a one-man run-off election on June 27. The poll followed widespread violence that prompted opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who won the first round in March, to withdraw.

South African President Thabo Mbeki was appointed by SADC to mediate in Zimbabwe, and had aimed to announce a power-sharing agreement before the start of this week's gathering. No such accord has been reached, and Mugabe joined other heads of state at the summit's opening ceremony, while Tsvangirai sat among the observers. Mugabe, 84, dozed through most of the proceedings.

``This summit allows us the chance to assist the parties to finalize their negotiations,'' Mbeki said after assuming the SADC chairmanship of from Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa. Mwanawasa, 59, is recovering in a Paris hospital after suffering a brain hemorrhage at an African Union meeting in Egypt on July 1.

The election dispute in Zimbabwe has ``no doubt left a serious blot on the culture of democracy in our region,'' the Zambian leader said in an address read out by his Foreign Affairs Minister, Kabinga Pande.

`Fifty-fifty'

SADC's committee on politics and security, which comprises the leaders of Angola, Swaziland and Tanzania, discussed the situation in Zimbabwe last night. No information on the outcome of the talks was made available. Tendai Biti, the secretary general of Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change, said there is a ``fifty-fifty'' chance a deal will be struck this weekend.

Tsvangirai said he would address the media tomorrow. Arthur Mutambara, the leader of a MDC faction, and Sydney Mufamadi, Mbeki's chief negotiator, declined to comment.

Zimbabwe is in its 10th year of economic recession and has the world's highest inflation rate, 2.2 million percent, following a land-redistribution campaign begun by Mugabe in 2000. The program, in which white-owned commercial farms were seized for redistribution to black farmers deprived of land during colonial rule, slashed agricultural output and led to shortages of basic commodities including flour and cooking oil.

About 3,000 members of South African and Zimbabwean labor unions marched to the summit venue today to demand stronger action in the Zimbabwean crisis. The protesters sang songs condemning Mugabe and held up banners criticizing his reign. They also called for the removal of King Mswati of Swaziland, who has banned all political parties and rules by decree.

SADC's members are Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Seychelles, which left the bloc in 2004, owing it $2.6 million in outstanding dues, is due to be readmitted at this year's summit.

Tomorrow, the grouping will start a free trade area, the latest step in a regional integration plan that envisions the creation of a customs union by 2010, a common central bank and currency by 2016.