Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (File)
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (File)

Wednesday, Zimbabwe's ZANU-PF begins one of its most important party congresses since coming to power at the country's independence in 1980.  Many ZANU-PF delegates say they want to decide who will succeed President Robert Mugabe, who will be 86 in February.

Provincial delegates loyal to ZANU-PF are gathering in Harare for their congress, which is held every five years to decide the party's leadership. 

This party meeting is being held nearly a year after ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since independence.  Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe received fewer votes in the presidential election last year than MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who pulled out of the second round of runoff citing violence against his supporters.

ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change have since formed a unity government with Mr. Tsvangirai as prime minister.

ZANU-PF delegates say the battle to succeed Mr. Mugabe is between Vice President Joyce Mujuru and Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The unity government's political agreement says a ZANU-PF member will succeed Mr. Mugabe as national president should he retire or die before new elections.  Zimbabwe will not vote again until a new constitution is adopted, which could take two years.

ZANU-PF youth secretary for Harare province, Tendai Wenyika, predicted the congress would be turbulent and said most people want the succession issue decided.  She said at previous congresses and annual conferences, the question of succession had been what she described as "taboo."

But she said Mr. Mugabe is now too old to continue for much longer.  She and others also say Mr. Mugabe's long tenure has caused "factionalism" in the party.

Meanwhile, South Africa President Jacob Zuma's three-person team of mediators is back in Harare, for the second time in two weeks.

They were meeting Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai to try to resolve outstanding issues from the political agreement that led to the still fragile unity government.

Leader of the team, is African National Congress stalwart Charles Ngakula.

"We are following up on the negotiations that are happening," he said.  "And we believe that there will obviously be a story that we will get.  That is our main purpose so that we can better report that.  We have given a report and of course there were still some details that [Zuma] still wanted to have."

The outstanding issues include senior civil servant appointments made by Mr., Mugabe after he signed the political agreement and his main complaint is that the West maintains some sanctions against Zimbabwe.

Mr. Zuma's team of mediators will forward their report on progress toward resolving the outstanding issues to the Southern Africa Development Community, which guaranteed the political agreement.