South African President Thabo Mbeki, appointed mediator in the Zimbabwe crisis last week by Southern African Development Community leaders, said his first concern is to ensure that the next elections that are held in Zimbabwe be free and fair.
In an an interview published in the Financial Times of London on Tuesday, Mbeki said that although “regime change” does not figure on his agenda, he does expect that President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe will eventually stand down.
"We don't have a big stick," Mbeki told Financial Times reporters, meaning that he did not intend to force a change in Harare through intervention, military or otherwise.
He told the newspaper that he would try to restart informal discussions between Mr. Mugabe's ruling party and the opposition, hoping to pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections less than a year from now in March 2008.
Mbeki's comments on Zimbabwe elections tacitly contradicted the communiqué issued at the SADC summit, which asserted that elections in Zimbabwe since 2002 have been free and fair. The elections drew wide criticism for alleged voter intimidation and ballot fraud by Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, particularly in isolated rural communities.
He acknowledged that Zimbabwe's electoral process was flawed, "but we do have to get Zimbabweans talking so we do have elections that are free and fair."
International Relations Secretary Eliphas Mukonoweshuro of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change faction of Morgan Tsvangirai told VOA that he would welcome a negotiated settlement and would concede defeat if elections are free and fair.
Mbeki spokesman Mukoni Ratshitanga told VOA that the negotiation process was well under way, noting that the secretaries general of the two MDC factions had met with officials from Mr. Mbeki’s office two weeks ago.
Johannesburg-based independent analyst Aubrey Matshiqi told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that Mr. Mbeki's latest comments indicate that despite its seeming support of Mr. Mugabe, SADC has hardened its stance on the crisis.
More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...