SADC: Zim's problems 'exaggerated'

Southern African leaders failed on Friday to heed calls for strong action against the embattled Zimbabwean government, saying the ailing country’s problems are “exaggerated”.

“We ... feel that the problems in Zimbabwe have been exaggerated. We feel they will solve their economic problems,” the Zambian President and chairperson of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC), Levy Mwanawasa, told journalists at the end of a two-day heads-of-state summit in Lusaka, Zambia.

“We are quite satisfied with the report from South African President Thabo Mbeki on the crisis in Zimbabwe,” said the Zambian leader, who recently likened neighbouring Zimbabwe to a “sinking Titanic”.

Zimbabwe is in the throes of an economic crisis with inflation well past the 5 000% mark, four in five people jobless and 80% of the population living below the poverty threshold.

The SADC mandated Mbeki in March to mediate between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Mbeki reported on progress to the summit, while SADC secretariat executive chairperson Tomaz Salomao briefed heads of state on Zimbabwe’s dire economic straits.

‘Work in progress’

Mbeki told a news conference later the rival Zimbabwean parties remain engaged in talks on the basis of a mutually agreed agenda, describing it as “work in progress”.

“They ... are making progress in these discussions,” said the president, adding any breakthrough would be reported to SADC. “Everybody is interested that when the presidential and parliamentary elections take place in March next year in Zimbabwe, they should be held in an atmosphere that will result in free and fair elections without controversies and so on.”

But Mbeki said no conditions or deadlines have been set. “Nobody has talked about conditionalities of anything.”

Mwanawasa said SADC is satisfied that Zimbabwe’s existing electoral laws are conducive to free and fair polls.

Mugabe has blamed his country’s woes on drought and Western sanctions, but critics say problems started with a controversial government land-reform programme that saw thousands of white-owned commercial farms seized and redistributed to landless blacks and government cronies.

Mugabe is also criticised for stifling democracy and overseeing a violent government clampdown on the opposition.

Economic problems

Mbeki said Zimbabwe’s economic problems will be looked into urgently, on the basis of Salomao’s report, by a committee of finance ministers. The ministers will discuss the matter with the Zimbabwean government “to pin down in some detail what indeed the region can do with regard to economic recovery”.

“There is urgency for us to get into this matter [of Zimbabwe’s failing economy],” said Mbeki.

Before the summit opened, Mugabe’s Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, said on Thursday that no political reforms are necessary in his country. “We have a democracy like any other democracy in this world ... I cannot see how a system can be any fairer or more transparent [than it is in Zimbabwe],” he told journalists.

“You have a situation where issues are being portrayed, exaggerated. People portray Zimbabwe as a country that has become ungovernable. Nothing is further from the truth,” the minister said.

Zanu-PF has been the ruling political party in Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980.

Mbeki and the SADC are accused by critics in the West and civic bodies around the world of treating Mugabe with kid gloves.

Global watchdog Human Rights Watch had urged SADC to use the summit to put pressure on Mugabe’s government to “end its broadscale attack on human rights”.

Mugabe was absent from Friday’s closing ceremony for the summit.

He told Zambia’s state ZNBC television on Friday that sanctions, comprising a travel ban and a freeze on the European accounts of top Zimbabwean officials, are to blame for his country’s economic woes, adding things are getting better. “It is going well, relatively,” he said. “We are trying to use our resources to bring about a turn-around.”

The defiant, 83-year-old Zimbabwean leader was given a rousing welcome to the summit on Thursday, despite mounting global criticism of the crisis in his country.


Meanwhile, the United States said on Friday it supports efforts by Southern African leaders to resolve a political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe.

US State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said in a statement that such engagement shows “the region considers the situation an increasing threat to stability and is committed to a democratic and prosperous Zimbabwe”.

“We regret that the Mugabe regime has not expressed a similar commitment,” McCormack said.

The US, the statement said, deplores “the Mugabe regime’s continued acts of oppression against all segments of society”.—Sapa-AFP, Sapa-AP

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