Zuma says Zimbabwe making progress

The South African president said Zimbabwe's young national unity government is working, despite recent bickering over powersharing.

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    Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, right, welcomes South African President Jacob Zuma at Harare International airport, Thursday.
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After meeting with the members of Zimbabwe's coalition government, South African President Jacob Zuma yesterday said the six-month-old national unity government was functioning well.

In Zimbabwe on his first visit as president, Mr. Zuma said that despite complaints from all three principal signatories to a coalition agreement – the long-ruling President Robert Mugabe and his two chief rivals, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara – the deal has given the country a welcome respite from months of political violence and economic collapse.

"There have been positive developments in Zimbabwe since the January 2009 SADC Extraordinary Summit," said Zuma, referring to the Southern African Development Community's final push to ensure that Mr. Mugabe and the opposition implemented the peace deal signed in September 2008. "The inclusive government is functioning and the joint monitoring and implementation committee is also progressing well.

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"We are also encouraged by the consensus reached by the inclusive government parties on the need for national healing and reconciliation," he added.

Zuma's statements fell short of the "tougher" stance that African National Congress spokesmen had suggested the new South African president would take toward his counterpart Mugabe.

Zimbabwe's decline as breadbasket

Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have ruled Zimbabwe since the country's liberation from white-minority rule in 1980. During this nearly 30-year tenure, Zimbabwe has gone from being a regional breadbasket to a net-recipient of food aid, with one of the highest inflation rates in human history.

Mugabe's harsh treatment of political opponents has also caused many Western countries to cut off development aid and to apply targeted sanctions on Mugabe and his inner circle.

Despite the coalition agreement, tensions among the ruling partners have risen recently. Work has largely stopped as the parties bicker over issues of powersharing and control of ministries.

Yet while Zuma's public speech affirmed that Zimbabwe's coalition partners would now go back to working together, it's impossible to know what was said behind closed doors, and whether Zuma's personal style of diplomacy is any different from that of his more accommodating predecessor, President Thabo Mbeki.

Appeal to lift sanctions

On the economic front, Zimbabwe's situation has greatly improved since the formation of the unity government, under which Mugabe, Mr. Tsvangirai, and Mr. Mutambara share power, Zuma said. But true economic recovery, he added, will only come once Western countries such as the US and Britain lift their sanctions. "We appeal to the international community to remove any remaining hindrances to Zimbabwe's recovery including sanctions," Zuma said.

The South African president said during his meeting with Mugabe, Tsvangirai, and Mutambara that the three agreed to speed up implementation of the coalition agreement and to find solutions to disagreements.

"The important factor is that there is commitment among all parties, which will make the movement forward possible," he said. "The region stands united behind the people of Zimbabwe, and all seek solutions."

Zuma called on the international community to provide development aid. In one sign of toughness, he said that the coalition partners must fulfill the benchmarks set by donors to ensure assistance. The benchmarks include complete implementation of the agreement.

231 million percent inflation

Several issues still threaten to tear the coalition government apart. Mugabe's months-long delay in swearing in provincial governors and deputy ministers from Tsvangirai's and Mutambara's parties are seen as signs of bad faith. Mugabe's insistence on retaining Gideon Gono as his Reserve Bank governor – despite his economic management during a time when the country had a 231 million percent inflation rate – and the targeted arrests of members of parliament from Tsvangirai's party has also caused many opposition leaders to cry foul.

Even so, it is clear that the three main leaders have made concessions, says University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer John Makumbe. "I think they have agreed on what they should call outstanding issues and set deadlines at which those things must be done. Information is still sketchy, but I understand it's what has happened," he says.

Zuma is expected to brief SADC leaders early next month about the implementation of the Zimbabwe agreement.

One analyst who requested anonymity said Mugabe might say in the meetings that he would comply with the agreement, "but as soon as Zuma leaves, he would behave differently as usual."

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