By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 18, 2008
JOHANNESBURG, April 17 -- South Africa turned up the pressure on President Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe on Thursday, calling the political stalemate there "dire" and urging election officials to release results of the March 29 presidential vote.
The statement, from government spokesman Themba Maseko, was South Africa's clearest and most forceful yet about the heightening political drama in Zimbabwe. Mugabe got fewer votes than opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, according to independent observers, but the government-controlled electoral commission has refused to release the official tallies.
"We are concerned about the delay in the release of the results and the anxiety this is causing," Maseko said, speaking from Pretoria, the capital of South Africa. He also expressed concern about reports of rising violence in Zimbabwe.
Maseko's comments came amid mounting international frustration with both Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since its founding in 1980, and South African President Thabo Mbeki, the most powerful diplomatic player in the region.
Mbeki declared last weekend that there was "no crisis" in Zimbabwe, provoking criticism in South Africa, including within his own party, the African National Congress, and beyond its borders. Zimbabwe is suffering from an inflation rate of 168,000 percent, chronic food shortages and, since the election, a surge of political violence and arrests of opposition figures. Millions of Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa and other countries.
After years of complaining about Mbeki's reluctance to challenge Mugabe, Tsvangirai told reporters Thursday that Mbeki should be replaced as the lead mediator of the crisis.
"President Mbeki needs to be relieved from his duty," Tsvangirai said, according to news reports. Tsvangirai said he favored a more active role for Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa, head of the Southern African Development Community, who has been more critical of Mugabe.
President Bush, speaking in Washington later in the day, said he appreciated that "some in the region have spoken out against violence" but that "more leaders in the region need to speak out. And the United Nations and the A.U. must play an active role in resolving the situation in Zimbabwe."
Mugabe's party has vowed to contest and win a runoff vote, which has not yet been scheduled but is triggered automatically if no candidate gets a clear majority.
The Herald newspaper, a government mouthpiece, accused Tsvangirai of working with former colonial ruler Britain to undermine Zimbabwe's sovereignty. Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa was quoted as saying that "on the part of Tsvangirai this is treasonous," and that there was "no doubting [the] consequences for acting in [a] treasonous manner."
Tsvangirai has been meeting with regional leaders around southern Africa in the past week but plans to return to Zimbabwe within several days, according to his spokesman George Tshibotshiwa.
Anti-government activist Lovemore Madhuku, head of the National Constitutional Assembly, predicted that Mugabe would stop short of arresting Tsvangirai. The rising violence, Madhuku said, was part of a ruling party campaign to keep opposition supporters from voting in an eventual runoff, especially in rural towns where Tsvangirai made significant inroads into Mugabe's traditional base of support.
"They just want to intimidate people and get away with it," said Madhuku, who predicted the strategy would succeed. "It will be enough."