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Zimbabwean Unrest Gives S. Africa Pause

Government: President Mbeki worries that the neighboring nation risks more turmoil amid doubts that it could hold free and fair elections.


PRETORIA, South Africa — President Thabo Mbeki on Thursday expressed doubts that free and fair elections can be held in Zimbabwe, South Africa's northern neighbor, and he voiced concern that a flawed presidential vote could plunge that violence-torn country into greater turmoil.

"If you had elections in Zimbabwe which were not seen by the people as legitimate, and where [a] government forms which people didn't see as legitimate, you would then end up probably with a situation worse than it is now," Mbeki told members of South Africa's Foreign Correspondents Assn.

Political violence has rocked Zimbabwe in recent months, with a wave of attacks against supporters of the country's political opposition, intimidation and harassment of journalists, and the introduction of laws that political observers believe are designed to disenfranchise opposition supporters and ensure victory for the ruling party in next year's presidential election.

Zimbabwe's Stability Crucial to S. Africa

Analysts say South Africa's credibility as a regional leader--and the success of an Mbeki-led initiative aimed at breathing life into the continent's economy--is closely linked to his government's role in helping to foster democracy and long-term stability in Zimbabwe.

But the government of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe appears to be pulling further away from democracy.

Mugabe's government is reluctant to allow independent monitoring of the election, due by April, and is adamant about continuing its controversial land redistribution program, which has fueled tensions and led to the deaths of 10 white farmers in the last two years. Plans are also underway to amend the country's electoral laws to prohibit millions of Zimbabweans living abroad from casting ballots.

"Clearly in a situation in which people get disenfranchised, in which people get beaten up so that they don't take an honest decision or act according to their political convictions, obviously there can't be free elections if there are circumstances like that," Mbeki said.

Mugabe has accused former colonial ruler Britain and white farmers of sponsoring the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to commit acts of terrorism, and last week a government spokesman singled out several foreign correspondents and local independent journalists as terrorists.

In what it calls a bid to curb terrorism, the government has thrown its weight behind a so-called Public Order and Security Bill. Punishment includes the death penalty for acts of "insurgency, banditry, sabotage and terrorism," as well as the threat of jail and fines for anyone who "undermines the authority of the president" or "engenders hostility" toward the president. The bill requires parliamentary approval.

Mugabe Increases Security Measures

As an extra security measure, workmen Thursday placed concrete posts around Mugabe's offices in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare.

Mbeki acknowledged that despite engagement by the regional community, the situation in Zimbabwe isn't improving and efforts by the United Nations and the Southern African Development Community to resolve the political upheaval have failed.

"They have not produced the results that we wanted," Mbeki said.

The political turmoil in Zimbabwe has been coupled with economic distress: The country's annual inflation nears 98%; three-quarters of the population lives at or below the poverty line; and agricultural shortfalls have left many hungry.

"The country, potentially a breadbasket of southern Africa, has become a basket case," said a recent editorial in South Africa's weekly Sunday Independent newspaper.

The food shortage has been intensified by the disruption of work on white-owned commercial farms, hundreds of which have been invaded by pro-government militants and veterans of the country's independence war. Mugabe's government has targeted about 5,000 such farms for redistribution to largely landless blacks.

Officials at Zimbabwe's Commercial Farmers' Union estimated that overall farm production could decline by 27% this year. Tobacco production has dropped by more than 20%, agriculture industry sources said.

Mbeki indicated that Britain should play a lead role in resolving Zimbabwe's land crisis.

"We never colonized Zimbabwe," Mbeki said. "We never made a commitment about land in Zimbabwe."

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