/ 26 September 2007

Tutu ‘devastated’ by Mugabe’s rule

South African Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu said on Tuesday he was ”devastated” by the human rights abuses of President Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe, where the economy has virtually collapsed.

But Tutu, who has criticised South African President Thabo Mbeki for his policy of ”quiet diplomacy” toward the Zimbabwean leader, said he was growing more confident in Mbeki’s efforts to coax its Southern African neighbour toward political reform.

”I have in the past lambasted the softly, softly approach. But I have to admit I have been very surprised,” Tutu said in an interview with Reuters.

He cited signs that Zimbabwe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) party and its political opposition, had moved toward a compromise that could lead to elections next year.

Tutu said he struggles to understand how Mugabe, denounced as ”tyrannical” by United States President George Bush at the UN General Assembly in New York, changed so drastically after steering the former British colony to independence in 1980.

Under Mugabe’s 27-year rule Zimbabwe has plunged from prosperity to penury.

”I’m just devastated by what I can’t explain, by what seems to be an aberration, this sudden change in character,” said the 75-year-old former archbishop of Cape Town.

”But it does not in any way remove that he did do very well. Zimbabwe was for a very long time a showcase country.”

Mugabe, a former Marxist guerrilla, is accused of engineering the country’s chaotic descent with controversial policies, like the seizure of commercial farms, many of which were handed to cronies or inexperienced farmers.

Zimbabwe is now wracked by severe shortages of food, fuel and foreign currency. It has the world’s highest inflation rate of more than 7 000%, its mines and industries are crumbling and the unemployment rate is estimated at around 80%.

An estimated two to three million Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa.

Mugabe’s government has widely condemned for rigging elections, beating opposition leaders, crushing street protests and intimidating the press.

Tutu, who took on South Africa’s apartheid government as the country’s first black bishop and won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, said Mbeki’s policy toward Mugabe’s government now appears to be working better than expected.

He said he was encouraged by constitutional changes that could bring presidential and parliamentary elections to Zimbabwe next year, citing recent talks between the opposition and Zanu-PF that could ”pave the way for possibilities of change”.

”And that has been exclusively due to the SADC [Southern African Development Community] initiative where President Mbeki has played a critical role and I am ready to commend them and to say let us give them a little more time and see whether something substantial actually does emerge,” he said.

Senior head of state

Meanwhile, Mugabe will attend an European Union-Africa summit in Portugal in December despite a boycott threat by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Zimbabwe’s information minister said on Tuesday.

Brown said last week it would be inappropriate for him to attend the meeting because Mugabe’s presence would divert attention from important agenda items.

The summit between the two continental blocs failed to take place in 2003 after Britain and other EU states — who accuse Mugabe of rights abuses — refused to attend if he did.

But Zimbabwe’s Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu told journalists the veteran ruler had the support of the African Union (AU) and regional African leaders and would go to Lisbon.

”Mugabe is one of the most senior heads of state in Africa … inseparable from the AU, so his attendance in Lisbon should not be questioned,” Ndlovu said.

”His attendance is not predicated on any Western head of state or EU member attending or not attending.”

In Lisbon, a spokesperson for the Portuguese foreign ministry said no invitations had been sent yet. ”There will be no discrimination, we want everybody to come,” she said. – Reuters