The summit of southern African leaders that ended Tuesday in Malawi produced an unprecedented task force to address the unrest that has rocked Zimbabwe for the last year and a half. Leaders of the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, acknowledged for the first time that they are concerned about the way Zimbabwe's crisis is affecting their own nations.
The SADC leaders say they are worried that the economic effects of the turmoil in Zimbabwe could spill over into their neighboring countries, at a time when many of their economies are already struggling.
After the summit, South African President Thabo Mbeki told reporters if the situation in Zimbabwe gets any worse, it will inevitably affect the rest of the region. "There is no such thing as a Zimbabwe that can be isolated from the rest of Southern Africa," Mr. Mbeki said. "If Zimbabwe collapses, it will have a very, very bad negative effect on the rest of the region, and therefore the region wants to do whatever it can to assist, to make sure we don't get that kind of worsening."
SADC leaders have decided to form a task force aimed at resolving Zimbabwe's political and economic problems before they get worse. President Mbeki says representatives of member nations will visit Zimbabwe and talk to all of the parties involved. "The committee should interact with the people in Zimbabwe," Mr. Mbeki said. "We would like to talk to everybody: the commercial farmers union, the business people, the war veterans, opposition parties and so on."
The move marks a major departure for both SADC and Zimbabwe. In the past, SADC has declined to intervene in the domestic affairs of its member states. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has rejected any attempts by other nations to intervene, but this is the second time in recent weeks he has appeared to soften that stance. He has already agreed to allow Nigeria to host a meeting of Commonwealth nations next month aimed at brokering a solution to his land crisis. And now he has agreed to let SADC nations try to find a solution to his political troubles.
Analysts say Mr. Mugabe's neighbors appear to have exerted some pressure on him in order to get him to agree to the plan. Peter Vale a professor of international relations at the University of Cape Town says, "What this does, I think, is that it suggests that Mugabe recognizes that he has problems - if he hadn't recognized it before, they have brought him to this realization and that he has permitted people to come in and try and mediate a way out of the crisis," Mr. Vale said. "It's an extremely important issue because the states of the region have never... this kind of behavior, this sort of tolerance, this sort of outside intervention, to use an old phrase, has never happened before. And I think that's the importance of this issue."
Mr. Vale says the timing of the summit may have had something to do with Mr. Mugabe's willingness to allow the task force into the country. It came after more than a week of unrest in the northern Zimbabwean town of Chinhoyi. Militant supporters of the ruling party have looted and pillaged hundreds of farms, chasing both farmers and farm workers off the land.
Mr. Vale also says, after more than a year and a half of general instability, Mr. Mugabe's neighbors have probably lost patience. "I don't think it was to Mr. Mugabe's comfort that the Malawi summit happened at exactly the same time as the events in Chinhoyi," Mr. Vale points out. "So he obviously had to face the day to day situation as he was talking to his colleagues, so he couldn't duck and dive anymore. So I think that's one reason. The second thing is, as Mbeki said, the reverberations around of Zimbabwe the region now are absolutely real. They're affecting everyone now."
It is not clear how soon the task force will begin its work in Zimbabwe. President Mbeki says SADC representatives will start meeting within a week to plan their strategy.