By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 23, 2007
JOHANNESBURG, March 22 -- Zimbabwean opposition leaders plan to travel to South Africa on Friday for urgent talks as regional governments increase pressure on President Robert Mugabe following recent assaults on anti-government activists.
The March 11 police beatings that hospitalized opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and dozens of others have provoked growing unease among African leaders who for years refrained from criticizing Mugabe, even as Zimbabwe descended into political and economic chaos.
Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa on Tuesday called Zimbabwe, his country's southern neighbor, "a sinking Titanic whose passengers are jumping out in a bid to save their lives." He also called for "a new approach" in dealing with the situation.
Other regional leaders were working more quietly but with increasing urgency to find a solution to the crisis. South Africa's ambassador to Zimbabwe paid an unscheduled, 90-minute visit to Tsvangirai at his home Monday, opposition officials said, adding that the South African government had invited them to the Friday meeting in Pretoria.
A South African government spokesman, Themba Maseko, said from Pretoria that he could not confirm the meeting but added: "We're working with other heads of state to try to get the Zimbabweans to sit around the table and talk. . . . We're just concerned about the level of violence taking place."
Zimbabwe's opposition, rights groups and some South African politicians have criticized the region's policy of "quiet diplomacy" as ineffective. Amnesty International said in a letter to Britain's Guardian newspaper that the response of African governments had been "far too weak."
African countries, most of which gained independence only in the past 50 years, have long been reluctant to chastise one another publicly. And Zimbabwean officials often seek to deflect criticism by blaming Western interference for their troubles.
"African countries must not allow themselves to be divided by imperialism," Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said Thursday on state-controlled Zimbabwe television. "The West, and the Western news networks, are demonizing Zimbabwe, giving a one-sided perspective."
But there are growing signs that members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a 14-nation group including Zimbabwe and all its immediate neighbors, are losing patience with a crisis that is tarnishing the region's reputation and creating refugees.
"What we're seeing is a seismic shift as far as African politics are concerned," said Trevor Ncube, a newspaper publisher in Zimbabwe and South Africa. "Something is about to happen."
Mugabe, 83, has led Zimbabwe since the end of white supremacist rule in 1980. That makes him one of Africa's longest-serving leaders and an elder statesman in groups such as the African Union and the SADC.
That status, however, eroded over the past seven years as Mugabe cracked down on political activity, closed independent newspapers and oversaw the destruction of an economy that was among the continent's strongest. Unemployment stands at 80 percent and inflation at nearly 2,000 percent. Zimbabwe has gone from an exporter of corn and other crops to a chronic recipient of international food aid.
Mugabe's support for violent seizures of white-owned farms in 2000 won him praise in a region where anti-colonial feelings run strong. But he has lost backing in recent years, especially since a brutal slum-clearance campaign in 2005 left an estimated 700,000 Zimbabweans without homes or jobs.
The March 11 arrests and beatings, reported around the world, hardened opposition to Mugabe, analysts say.
Since then, government attacks on activists have continued. The spokesman of Tsvangirai's party was beaten with iron bars Sunday at the airport in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, producing more gruesome news images illustrating the brutality of Mugabe's reign.
"I do sense a deepening frustration with Mugabe," said Ross Herbert, an analyst with the South African Institute of International Affairs. "It is an embarrassment to the rest of Africa."