African criticism of Mugabe rises

South African President Mbeki met with Zimbabwe's main opposition party for the first time last week.

In his three-year effort to reengineer the racial and economic landscape of Zimbabwe by forcibly taking farms away from whites and giving them to blacks, President Robert Mugabe has long counted on - and gotten - support from almost all of Africa's leaders.

Until now.

With half of Zimbabwe's 12 million people facing hunger, inflation over 600 percent, and state-sponsored torture a common tool, hints of criticism by regional leaders that began showing up last month have now started to expand.

Everyone from Nigeria's President Olesegun Obasanjo to Archbishop Desmond Tutu has distanced themselves from Mugabe. Even South African President Thabo Mbeki, his chief regional supporter, met last week for the first time with Zimbabwe's main opposition party. It may all portend greater desire to resolve southern Africa's biggest political crisis, and it could hasten the end of the Mugabe regime.

"There's been a shift in thinking about Zimbabwe," says Chris Maroleng, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. "We're seeing cracks within the African region's solidarity."

The fissures first appeared at last month's meeting in Nigeria of the 54-member Commonwealth, made up of mostly former British colonies. Seven of the 18 African members reportedly failed to back South Africa in an effort to oust Commonwealth Secretary- General Don McKinnon over his criticism of Zimbabwe.

The split vote could give more clout to Mr. Obasanjo, the Commonwealth's current chairman, who has been less supportive of the Mugabe regime. He heads a seven-man team charged with tackling the Zimbabwe issue.

Even Archbishop Tutu, who's usually mum on policy matters, has joined South African church leaders in criticizing Mr. Mbeki's strategy of "quiet diplomacy" on Zimbabwe. Mr. Tutu said last week that outside help is crucial in dealing with repressive regimes. "We could not have defeated apartheid on our own," he said, comparing Mugabe's government to South Africa's apartheid-era rule.

The pressure may be having an impact on Mbeki. His 45-minute meeting with leaders of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe's main opposition party - following a two-hour-plus meeting with Mugabe - elicited promises from both sides to restart informal talks. The MDC says Mugabe stole the 2001 presidential election.

Not that Mbeki has fundamentally changed his strategy of quiet diplomacy. In a weekly letter on his party's website, he intoned that land reform is the central issue in the Zimbabwe debate and that Mugabe deserves credit for trying to rectify inequalities.

Mugabe's government has hardly changed its approach, either. It recently announced a policy allowing confiscation of white farmers' tractors and other farm equipment. And despite a court order to the contrary, police this weekend forcibly prevented the country's only independent newspaper from publishing an edition.

Just three years ago Mugabe's California-sized country was one of Africa's economic gems, a lush, functional nation that brought in thousands of tourists and exported tons of corn, wheat, oranges, bananas, and tobacco.

Then Mugabe began trying to rectify one of the most-stubborn legacies of European colonialism: white-black economic inequality, a problem that troubles many African nations. In Zimbabwe at the time, just 4,000 white farmers owned roughly one-third of the country's productive agricultural land. Now only a handful of white farmers remain.

The lesson from Zimbabwe's experiment in land reform, says Raymond Louw, editor of Southern Africa Report, "is that now we know how not to do it."

Today, nearly half of Zimbabweans are getting food aid from international agencies. Sky-high inflation means, for instance, that a loaf of bread may cost $2 one morning, $3 in the afternoon, and $4 the next morning. And with 70 percent of residents are unemployed, Zimbabweans are moving across borders, creating economic and social problems in neighboring countries.

Zimbabwe has become increasingly isolated from the world. Mugabe recently pulled out of the Commonwealth, and the International Monetary Fund has initiated moves to expel the country.

The crisis has hurt Mbeki and his long-term vision of a united Africa. The more unified Africa is, the more it can become a force in global trade and politics, goes the rationale. "Mbeki is very strong on African unity - and is very sensitive to African nations voting against his line," says Patrick Laurence of The Helen Suzman Foundation, democracy-building group, in Johannesburg.

But Mbeki's continued support of Mugabe, despite the cost, also highlights the shorter-term political potency of the issue of white-black wealth redistribution - and the support Mbeki may have among poor black South Africans for backing Mugabe.

"There's this underlying support for Mugabe's land grab among the rank and file" in Africa, says Mr. Louw. "It's more powerful than we know."

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