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POLITICS-ZIMBABWE: A Regional – and National – Embrace for Mugabe

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Mar 30 2007 (IPS) - Hopes that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe would be taken to task this week over human rights abuses in his country have been dashed – this after regional leaders reaffirmed their solidarity with Zimbabwe, and the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) endorsed Mugabe as its presidential candidate for 2008 elections.

A special summit of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) also appealed for sanctions against Zimbabwe to be lifted.

The European Union imposed targeted sanctions on the country in 2002, and the United States in 2003, in response to rights violations in Zimbabwe and flawed parliamentary and presidential polls in 2000 and 2002 respectively. In its communiqué for the Mar. 28-29 summit, SADC described the 2002 presidential election as having been “free, fair and democratic”.

In addition, the summit communiqué called on Britain – Zimbabwe’s former coloniser – to honour a commitment made during independence negotiations to help fund land reform in the country aimed at rectifying racial imbalances in land ownership.

It also mandated South African President Thabo Mbeki “to continue to facilitate dialogue” between Zimbabwe’s government and opposition, and the SADC executive secretary to study the economic situation in the country.

South Africa’s policy of quiet diplomacy towards its northern neighbour has come under repeated attack, with critics accusing the approach of being ineffectual.

Zimbabwe is currently battling inflation of about 1,700 percent, widespread unemployment and shortages of food and other basic goods – evidence of economic decline ascribed to government mismanagement, and a controversial farm redistribution programme ostensibly aimed at giving property to landless, black Zimbabweans.

Mugabe blames Zimbabwe’s economic woes on Western nations, accused of undermining the Southern African country in response to the land reallocation programme.

The SADC summit also discussed the aftermath of elections in Lesotho, and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Just a day after regional leaders wrapped up their talks in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, ZANU-PF agreed to hold presidential, parliamentary and local government elections in 2008 – backing Mugabe to lead it in the polls. The 83-year-old leader has been in power since independence in 1980.

ZANU-PF’s continued support of Mugabe Friday came despite reports of disenchantment in party ranks at the effects of his rule, which has in recent weeks seen another crackdown on opposition supporters that claimed the life of an activist earlier this month.

Several others have been hospitalised after undergoing beatings. They include Morgan Tsvangirai – leader of a faction in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – who was assaulted when police broke up a prayer meeting on Mar. 11.

Mugabe has accused the MDC of staging a terror campaign to unseat him (a charge the party denies), and portrays it as a Western puppet. Reports indicate that nine opposition officials were charged this week in connection with the alleged terror campaign.

In a press release issued Wednesday, Human Rights Watch claimed that ordinary Zimbabweans had also been affected by the latest wave of state repression.

“Witnesses and victims from Harare’s high-density suburbs of Glenview, Highfield and Mufakose told Human Rights Watch that for the past few weeks police forces patrolling these locations have randomly and viciously beaten Zimbabweans in the streets, shopping malls, and in bars and beer halls,” notes the Mar. 28 document.

The New York-based grouping had called on SADC to speak out against abuse in Zimbabwe as well as against “the general climate of repression faced by (its) citizens”. It also wanted the region to appeal for and participate in an independent commission of inquiry into the latest abuses at the hands of security forces.

Ayesha Kajee, a researcher at the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs who recently visited Zimbabwe, says people there often depend for their survival on family and friends living abroad. Economic and political hardship has caused millions of Zimbabweans to leave for South Africa, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

“The standard of living has fallen among ordinary Zimbabweans. Two to five years ago an average family would have subsisted on proper meals. People now depend on grain and vegetables. They say they are relying on remittances from the disaspora,” she told IPS.

But, “If people were forced to change their forex (foreign exchange) at the official rate they would not live. They change it on the parallel market at 40 times the official rate,” Kajee added.

Remittances will not reach everyone, however.

On Thursday Rashid Khalikov, New York head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, informed the Security Council that harvests this year might only meet one third of Zimbabwe’s requirements. This would increase the number of people at risk of hunger, a figure that had already reached upwards of 1.4 million last year.

Agencies such as the U.N. World Food Programme are already feeding the needy in Zimbabwe.

Noted Kajee: “People are reluctant to tell you that they rely on food aid. But they will tell you that they know someone who relies on food aid. Of course they have their pride and dignity to protect.”

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