South African President Thabo Mbeki is meeting in Bulawayo with
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe before runoff presidential elections
next week. VOA's Delia Robertson reports from our southern Africa
bureau in Johannesburg, the meeting backdrop is a deepening political,
social and economic crisis in Zimbabwe.
President Mbeki canceled a long-planned official visit to Sudan in order to meet with Mr. Mugabe. The only official comment was a statement saying the visit was in connection with his duties as the Southern Africa Development Community facilitator for talks between the parties in Zimbabwe.
The deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Adam Habib, tells VOA that at the top of Mr. Mbeki's agenda in his talks with Mr. Mugabe is the ongoing violence against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
"The immediate priority of [Mr.] Mbeki would be to try and quell the violence that is happening all over the place," said Habib.
But Professor Habib adds that there is a growing acceptance among the political elites in Southern Africa that Mr. Mugabe must go. The question is how.
"But I think that there is a broader realization that what is at play, is to work out a deal that facilitates some kind of government of national unity," added Habib. "Their big dilemma is how to effect that, with an autocrat in power, and that is something they are grappling with on a day-to-day basis."
The opposition won the Zimbabwe elections in late March, but MDC presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai failed to achieve a simple 50-percent-plus-one majority in the presidential race, requiring a runoff.
Mr. Mbeki has since been the subject of severe worldwide criticism for his interventions, much of the criticism centered around incorrect reports he had said there was no crisis in Zimbabwe during the lengthy wait for the result.
U.S. President George Bush also discussed the ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe early today in a telephone conversation with Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa. White House officials have not released details of the discussions, but U.S. officials have been urging leaders in the region, especially Mr. Mbeki to press Zimbabwe's president to allow independent observers to monitor the upcoming election.
Habib says many Mbeki critics fail to note that it was largely his intervention that led to a successful poll in March. More than that he says, no one has offered any meaningful alternative to engagement with Mr. Mugabe.
"Thabo Mbeki can be much more critical than he has been. And that might be welcomed by a whole range of quarters including myself, and a number of other people, human rights activists around the world, even some political leaders in the U.K. and the U.S. But would that have contributed to breaking the logjam in Zimbabwe? It would have closed the door for Robert Mugabe, and if we are arguing that the only game in town is engagement; then you have just undermined the one influence you may have had," continued Habib.
Habib says Mr. Mbeki may be a lame-duck president at home, but he retains leverage with Mr. Mugabe because the Zimbabwean leader knows there is no other leader in the region with the same level of global influence.