Zim activists welcome SADC attitude
Johannesburg - A rights activist on Monday said a decision by Zimbabwe's neighbours to take a more active role in efforts to restore democracy in the southern African country is a sign that African leaders may no longer be coddling President Robert Mugabe.
In a message late on Sunday that followed two days of talks in Johannesburg, the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, also urged Zimbabwean leaders to move faster to "create a conducive environment to the holding of elections that will be free and fair, under conditions of a level playing field".
President Robert Mugabe's supporters are calling for polls this year to replace a shaky coalition with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's party. Mugabe has been accused of using violence and election fraud to hold onto power. Independent groups say the possibility of a vote has led to attacks on Mugabe's opponents.
SADC urged South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique to appoint officials to a Zimbabwean committee charged with leading the country to new elections.
The move would significantly step up SADC involvement in Zimbabwean affairs, as the key body now includes only members of Mugabe's party; of its long time rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change; and of a third party allied with the Movement for Democratic Change.
Zanu-PF released a statement on Monday indicating it would resist including South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique on the committee.
But Mugabe was quoted by state media on Monday as welcoming the outcome of the Johannesburg summit and praising South Africa's President Jacob Zuma.
Dewa Mavhinga, spokesperson for a coalition of Zimbabwean rights and development groups, said Mugabe and his party can remain defiant, or take the summit's declaration as a "reality check".
"SADC is committed to having free and fair elections in Zimbabwe," Mavhinga said. "There is definitely a shift that Zanu must contend with."
Zuma changed policy
At a news conference on Monday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US was encouraged by SADC's stance, saying it "emphasized the importance of President Mugabe following the requirements of" an agreement that paved the way for the coalition after inconclusive and violent 2008 elections. The agreement calls for reforms before a new vote.
Mavhinga said SADC's approach on Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party seemed to be shifting. Earlier approaches led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki on behalf of the southern Africa group were criticized as soft.
Jacob Zuma, who took over the South African presidency in 2009, is credited with making a change.
But Mavhinga said it will be difficult to translate words in a communiqué into change on the ground.
On Monday, Sibanengi Dube, an MDC spokesperson in Johannesburg, said two youth wing leaders learned after leaving Zimbabwe for Johannesburg for a SADC briefing that police were seeking them on murder charges in the death of a police officer.
Dube said the two cancelled the briefing because they feared being attacked by Zanu-PF agents in Johannesburg. Dube said they would return to Zimbabwe on Monday to face arrest and trial to prove their innocence in the police officer's case.
Several MDC activists have been arrested after the killing of police officer Petros Mutedza on May 30 in Harare.
Tsvangirai supporters deny involvement in the policeman's death and say the arrests are politically motivated.