Dumisani Muleya/Blessing Zulu
SOUTH African President Thabo Mbeki yesterday said President Robert Mugabe had agreed to begin formal talks with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in a bid to
end Zimbabwe’s crisis.
“I’m happy to say that they have agreed now that they will go into formal negotiations,” Mbeki told a joint news conference with visiting German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Mbeki said his government had been “engaging both sides for a very long time”.
Schroeder remarked that South Africa had “not been as outspoken and as hard as one might have expected” with Zimbabwe.
“I made myself very clear as far as the unacceptability of that regime is concerned, especially the political practices of that regime,” Schroeder said after a two-hour meeting with Mbeki in Pretoria.
To which Mbeki responded: “Strong statements cannot be an aim in itself. Our task is to see what we can contribute to make sure that situation is changed as quickly as possible for the better.”
It is understood Mugabe has agreed to resume talks that collapsed in May 2002 after MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai dragged Mugabe to court over a hotly-disputed presidential election. The case is currently postponed pending a ruling on matters raised during the initial hearing in early November.
Mugabe has been insisting that he would not talk to the opposition unless it acknowledged he was the legitimate head of state. The MDC has said it is prepared for dialogue anytime and anywhere.
However, of late the MDC is understood to have been arguing talks could not possibly resume if repression continues unabated. The opposition has reportedly cited the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ) case as one of the key matters to be resolved ahead of dialogue.
The ANZ’s Daily News, which had been closed for four months by government for operating without a licence, resumed publishing yesterday. Other issues which the opposition has raised as needing to be resolved before dialogue can resume include the repealing of repressive laws and opening up of democratic space to allow free political activity. However, the MDC’s chief negotiator, Prof Welshman Ncube, has said there are no conditions attached to the talks.
Mbeki has for some time been putting pressure on Mugabe to go back to the negotiating table. The South African leader was in Harare last month where he reportedly secured an assurance from Mugabe that dialogue would resume after his return from his current leave.
Mbeki’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” towarda Zimbabwe has been criticised as inaudible and ineffective. But he has defended his policy, saying it was the most appropriate way of handling the Zimbabwe crisis.
Last month, Mbeki protested against a decision to prolong Zimbabwe’s suspension from the Commonwealth as undemocratic and unhelpful, while brushing off concerns by the group of Britain and its former colonies about human rights abuses in the country. Mugabe subsequently pulled Zimbabwe out of the club in protest following the extended suspension.
Mbeki has also been under pressure to find a solution to the Zimbabwe crisis. Acting Assistant US Secretary of State for African Affairs Charles Synder this week said: “We’re hoping that President Mbeki will be able to quietly and effectively get President Mugabe to see that what is going on is destroying Zimbabwe.”
Zanu PF head of delegation to the talks Patrick Chinamasa said he could not comment as he was of leave, while Ncube said his party welcomed Mbeki’s announcement.
“It is a welcome development,” Ncube said. “We have been waiting for Zanu PF to return to the negotiating table unconditionally.” Zanu PF and the MDC have been engaged in private talks since March last year in a bid to secure a negotiated settlement.