The artful codger

As African heads of state gather in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa next week for the African Union summit, Zimabwe is not likely to be high on the agenda.

This is despite the fact that at last year’s AU summit President Thabo Mbeki — considered a key broker in the quest to resolve Zimbabwe’s political malaise — told the world that there would be settlement in the country by June this year.

But, by the eve of the recent Group of Eight (G8) economic powers summit, Mbeki sounded less optimistic: “In my view, they are moving too slowly. That’s my view,” he is reported to have commented.

“Moving too slowly” is an understatement. Mbeki was expected to bring Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to the table for formal negotiations.

To date, Zanu-PF and the MDC have failed to find enough common ground for official talks. For more than a year Mbeki’s office has told critics that there are talks, or talks about talks, going on. In reality that has turned out to be empty talk.

Last year, after meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mbeki told the press that Zimbabwe would amend its security laws. This has proved to be a myth.

Mozambican President and AU chairperson Joachim Chissano told the World Economic Forum in Durban last June that African leaders’ en-gagement with Zimbabwe had resulted in President Robert Mugabe agreeing to repeal oppressive laws against the media and the opposition — another myth. Zimbabwean Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa was quoted in the media on Thursday as saying the draconian Public Order and Security Act (Posa) is “the only tool that we have to fight lawlessness by those who want to remove a legitimately elected government”.

The Zimbabwean government has also used the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act to close newspapers — the Daily News, the Daily News on Sunday and recently The Tribune.

Freedom of assembly and political mobilisation is still limited thanks to the police’s selective and often erroneous application of Posa.

Human rights groups in Zimbabwe have sent a communication to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights detailing the subjugation of democratic principles. The fina1 report of the commission is expected to be tabled in Addis Ababa next week — albeit with little expectation of an indictment of Zimbabwe by the AU.

The expropriation of commercial farmland has continued, with long lists of properties to be acquired published in state papers every Friday. Large tracks of land that have already been acquired have remained fallow because the new farmers cannot raise money to till the land and grow crops.

The Zimbabwean government has promised to protect the property rights of South Africans farming in Zimbabwe. However, the situation on the ground says otherwise. Sugar plantations in the south-eastern lowveld — in which South African investors have interests — are current targets of expropriation.

Die-hard optimists will point to announcements by Chinamasa last weekend that the government will amend its electoral system for the better as evidence of Mugabe’s reform and a step towards a political settlement in the country.

Zimbabwe announced last weekend that its electoral laws should now conform to Southern African Development Community norms and standards. There are plans to appoint an independent electoral commission to run the polls. The new Zimbabwe Electoral Commission will replace current poll supervisors, including the registrar general and the Electoral Supervisory Commission. There are proposals to replace wooden ballot boxes with transparent ones and to ensure that polling takes place on one day.

The planned changes dovetail with some of the demands made by the MDC regarding the conduct of the electoral process.

However, MDC secretary general Welshman Ncube had serious reservations about the proposed electoral reforms.

“The MDC believes that in order to have an independent electoral commission the method of appointment must be a subject of negotiation by all stakeholders, including civil society, the MDC and Zanu-PF,” he said.

“Consequently the MDC is opposed to the appointment system, which might lead to a commission that is completely subservient to Zanu PF like the Media and Information Commission led by Tafataona Mahoso.”

Zanu-PF spokesman Nathan Sha-muyarira said the changes are good because “the entire electoral process will be handled by the new commission — we will have nothing to do with it”.

Rights groups contended that Mugabe still retains other instruments that could sway the 2005 election in his favour.

One question remains to be asked — despite all these blemishes, will Mugabe get a standing ovation in Addis Ababa?

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