Civic organizations in southern Africa are calling on their governments to take action to relieve unemployment, inequality and poverty in the region.
The call was made Friday at a People's SADC Summit, ahead of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit that opens in Zimbabwe on Sunday.
"If SADC is to be really relevant and responsive, they need to be in touch with the people," said Dalitso Kubalasa, spokesman for the Southern African Civic Organizations meeting in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo. "So this platform is offering that opportunity, because really the people are ready and eager to be part of the solution. Listen and listen to what people are saying."
Kubalasa said the failure of regional governments to listen to their citizens has resulted in the problem plaguing the region.
Leaders from southern Africa are meeting under a theme of "economic transformation," which they say can be achieved by using the region's vast natural resources.
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, a pariah in the West because of alleged election rigging and human rights violations, is to assume the rotating leadership of the 14-member bloc.
Deprose Muchena, who heads the Southern Africa office of Amnesty International, says Mugabe might have to steer away from his previous tactics when he serves as SADC chairman.
"One of the things that happens whenever you assume the chair of SADC, citizens across the region look up to you as a country and as a leader to resolve problems in their own countries," Muchena said. "It is possible that some SADC countries would be looking forward to the next SADC chair to raise concerns taking place in their countries because the spotlight will be on it, as it is on SADC."
Pro-democracy activist Wandile Dludlu from Swaziland says human rights abuses and democracy should be among the issues SADC leaders discuss at their meeting in Victoria Falls.
Swaziland is frequently cited as a human rights violater; the monarchy is known to actively prosecute journalists and criminalize freedom of expression.
Recently, human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and reporter Bheki Makhubu were sentenced to two years in jail for writing an article critical of the government. A Swazi court determined the article amounted to "interfering with the administration of justice."
"These are very recent cases of blatant human rights violations," Dludlu said. "There is no democracy in Swaziland. Zero. There is nothing else. It is about what the monarch wants."
Indexes of international press freedom routinely rank Zimbabwe, Malawi and Swaziland in the bottom quarter of nations, but the issue is unlikely to be discussed at the SADC summit.