The Zimbabwean government has not issued invitations to the Southern African Development Community to monitor whether it is complying with the Community's election guidelines. VOA's Delia Robertson reports on the difficulties in the relationship between Zimbabwe and its neighbors.

Southern Africa Development Community election guidelines stipulate that invitations to monitor elections must be issued 90 days before the election - meaning that Zimbabwe is more than 45 days late in inviting representatives from the region to monitor the elections.

South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said that regional representatives need to be in Zimbabwe to monitor the elections and that it would cause concern if they were not invited. And President Thabo Mbeki told national television that the role of regional representatives in Zimbabwe should also involve intervention.

"I've discussed the matter with President Mugabe, I am quite sure that the SADC delegation can go to Zimbabwe," he said. "I think that we should send in SADC delegation as quickly as is possible - not to go there and observe, but to be able to intervene to help to create the situation for free and fair elections."

The SADC protocol was adopted last year, including by Zimbabwe, and includes provisions relating to freedom of association, freedom to campaign and to vote, and equal access to state media such as national broadcasters. But Chris Moroleng of the independent Institute for Security Studies says Zimbabwe's security and media legislation continues to severely curtail the rights of both organizations and individuals."

"Unfortunately it seems that the Zimbabwean government has been able to a large extent to meet the provisions of the SADC electoral guidelines, which relate to freedom of expression, of political parties to campaign, free access to information by all political parties. And more importantly that the environment must allow the electorate free from let or fear to express their will," he said.

Up to now both South Africa and other regional neighbors have adopted an approach of quiet diplomacy toward Zimbabwe; attempting to influence change through persuasion. Mr. Mbeki has been at the center of this strategy - one some analysts say he adopted at least in part because Mr. Mugabe led his country to liberation and Mr. Mbeki believed that he could therefore be persuaded toward the greater good of his people.

But Zimbabwean Trevor Ncube, an independent newspaper publisher in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, says that the policy could also have been informed by ignorance of both the ruling ZANU-PF and of the recently formed opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). He says the MDC made a fundamental and immature error of judgment when, after its inception, it ignored African countries in favor of western nations when seeking international support.

"Because this crises in Zimbabwe unfortunately is not understood by our African brothers because we have not been across to the African brothers to explain what is taking place," he said. "The crises in Zimbabwe has been sold by Robert Mugabe as a white, racist thing - we are going after these white people - when it is not that. And trying to tell our African brothers that those who are suffering in Zimbabwe are not the whites, the people that are suffering are black Zimbabweans."

Mr. Ncube says that in particular the MDC disregarded the important role South Africa and its ruling party could play in helping to end the crises in Zimbabwe. But, he says, party leader Morgan Tsvangerai's recent visits to South Africa and other African countries are an attempt to rectify the situation. He says ongoing contacts between Mr. Mbeki and Mr. Tsvangerai have already had a beneficial effect.

"I think that has added another dimension in terms of sources of information - not just relying on what ZANU-PF is saying and what Robert Mugabe is saying, but realizing that the Zimbabwean story has at least two sides and that the MDC does have that other side of the story," he said. "And I suspect that emanating from that was president Thabo Mbeki [being] much more informed as to what the opposition's gripes and problems were all about."

Evidence of a shift in South Africa's strategy is in a change of approach by the South African government toward both the MDC and toward its own alliance partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions or COSATU in the latter's efforts to intervene in Zimbabwe.

In the past six months, COSATU delegations have twice been deported from Zimbabwe - mostly recently last month. Now the congress says it will step up its campaign against the Zimbabwe government, including using its extensive union muscle to effectively blockade that country's borders.

The independent Institute for Security Studies' Chris Moroleng says a COSATU-led blockage or even the threat of one, could add to the pressure on Zimbabwe and strengthen Mr. Mbeki's hand in his talks with Mr. Mugabe.

"It certainly could be a strategy by the ANC and the government - as if the government and the ANC are not one and the same thing. So in one way they are trying to maintain and open and cordial relationship between - at a government to government level, while at a party and alliance level they are creating space for dialogue and debate," said Chris Moroleng.

This kind of double-handed approach to negotiations is not new to Mr. Mbeki. He was part of the ANC negotiating team, which, while negotiating with the former apartheid government, used mass protests to both underpin its demands in talks and to speed up the negotiations process.

Zimbabwe has promised it will issue the invitations, and SADC Secretary-General Kasuka Mutukwa told VOA that even at this late date, monitors may be helpful in ensuring next month's poll freely reflects the will of Zimbabweans. But Mr. Moroleng and Mr. Ncube both say it might already be too late.