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South Africa Steps Up Involvement In Zimbabwe's Acute Political Crisis

The South African government has stepped up its involvement in the Zimbabwe crisis in an apparent effort to broker talks between moderate elements in the ruling ZANU-PF party of the increasingly beleaguered President Robert Mugabe, and factions of the the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, observers concluded.

Zimbabwean Vice President Joyce Mujuru traveled to Johannesburg late last week for discussions with Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Officials in Pretoria qualified her visit as "private," but political observers noted that she was accompanied by her husband, former army commander Solomon Mujuru, considered by many to be a potentially decisive factor in any rearrangement of power in Harare.

Her visit came amid reports that senior officials of the ruling party and the opposition have broached discussions. Founding president Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change said no such talks have taken place – but he told VOA that he is prepared to open talks with progressive ZANU-PF elements.

Meanwhile, aides to South African President Thabo Mbeki held talks with rival MDC secretaries general Tendai Biti and Welshman Ncube. Both declined to comment on the discussions. But insiders said Mbeki wants to push for talks between ZANU-PF and the MDC. Biti and Ncube outlined conditions for dialogue which included a new constitution, electoral reform and repeal of repressive Zimbabwean laws.

These developments come ahead of a critical ZANU-PF central committee meeting on Wednesday at which the ruling party elite is expected to come to a final decision on whether to pursue the so-called harmonization of elections under which the 2008 presidential election would be postponed until 2010.

A decision not to alter the ballot schedule would be seen as a snub to Mr. Mugabe, who has taken credit for the harmonization idea - but has also indicated that he would be prepared to seek re-election in 2008 if his party asked him to do so.

Among diplomatic developments, the Southern African Development Community troika or working group on Zimbabwe led by Tanzania and including Namibia and Lesotho was meeting Monday in Dar-es-Salaam for deliberations.

SADC spokeswoman Leefa Martin told VOA that the regional bloc has called an emergency summit in Tanzania on Thursday. SADC sources said Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are the main items on the agenda.

Researcher Chris Maroleng of South Africa’s Institute of Security Studies told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that such moves reflect increased concern in Pretoria about Zimbabwe’s deepening crisis.

Inside Zimbabwe, opposition officials reacted with suspicion to moves by authorities to relax a ban on political rallies imposed last month. Police in Chitungwiza late last week were cracking down on the city's St Mary’s district ahead of a rally called there Sunday by the Movement for Democratic Change faction headed by Arthur Mutambara.

Authorities reversed themselves Saturday, lifting the rally ban in Chitungwiza and telling the Mutambara faction it could go ahead with its rally - even promoting it over state radio and television. But police extended the ban on meetings in Harare South and Harare Central and refused to allow the Morgan Tsvangirai faction of the opposition to hold a rally Sunday in the Mbare section of the capital.

Mutambara MDC faction Deputy Secretary General Priscilla Misihairambwi-Mushonga said the grouping cancelled its Chitungwiza rally in solidarity with the rival faction and because it suspected Harare was pursuing a “divide and rule” strategy.

A heavy heavy police presence was later reported at the rally venue.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...