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Fact-Finding Group Visits Zimbabwe - 2003-05-01

In Zimbabwe, visiting members of the South African parliament say their government is adopting a more "hands on" approach to the problems of its northern neighbor. The group, from the parliamentary agricultural and land affairs committee, was in Zimbabwe on a fact-finding mission related to the country's controversial land reform program.

But members of the group say they used the opportunity to also look at other aspects of Zimbabwe's economic and political crisis.

Speaking at the end of their visit, the group's leader Neo Masitela lamented the politicization of the land reform exercise, saying that it should not have been divisive, but rather should have been a matter of national importance, with the participation of all interested groups.

Mr. Masitela said there seems to be a lack of communication between the parties to the Zimbabwe land issue. He said he had first-hand experience of this polarization when members of his group met with their counterparts on the Zimbabwe parliamentary agricultural committee, and later with the mostly white Commercial Farmer's Union.

Zimbabwe's chaotic and sometimes violent land reform program saw a majority of the country's white farmers lose their farms to landless blacks, most of them with ties to the ruling party.

Mr. Masitela refused to shed any further light on the findings of his group. But he emphasized that it is not the South African government's intention to try to dictate to the Zimbabweans. Rather, he said South Africa will make suggestions on how progress could be made.

The delegation said South African President Thabo Mbeki is being kept informed of its findings and should, as a result, be more informed when he meets next week with Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe.

The visit Monday by Mr. Mbeki, along with those of Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Bakili Muluzi of Malawi, occur amid mounting pressure on Mr. Mugabe to relinquish power after leading Zimbabwe since independence 23 years ago. The president, who was re-elected in a disputed election in March 2002, has said he has no intention of quitting before the end of his six-year term.

Some of the South African lawmakers privately expressed dismay at the decline of the Zimbabwean economy and the lack of tolerance in the country. They said they hope the visit of the three African leaders will break the political logjam, which has led to the country's worst economic crisis since independence.