Heads of state of the Southern African Development Community on Saturday took up the question of how fast Zimbabwe should move to new elections, weighing President Robert Mugabe's demands for a ballot this year against warnings from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and many others that the elections groundwork must be carefully laid.
SADC leaders were in Johannesburg for a tripartite summit with leaders of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, or Comesa, and the East Africa Community on trade integration, but its Zimbabwe deliberations drew the keenest attention.
The SADC heads of state opened their discussions on the political situation in Harare, where the power-sharing national unity government launched in early 2009 is showing signs of strain not least over the question of when new elections should be held.
President Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party insist elections must be held in 2011, but Mr. Tsvangirai's MDC formation and the smaller MDC wing of Industry Minister Welshman Ncube say many reforms are needed first, including a new constitution, a revamped voters roll and, controversially, depoliticization of the police and the military.
The main issue before the SADC leaders was whether to adopt in full the resolutions of the organization's troika on politics, defense and security issued after a March meeting in Livingstone, Zambia, calling for an end to political violence and accelerated reforms as well as the drafting of a road map to new elections including necessary reforms.
South African President Jacob Zuma, SADC's mediator in Zimbabwe, will be briefing his fellow heads of state on progress in Harare. His report to the SADC troika at the time of the Livingstone troika meeting was tacitly critical of President Mugabe and ZANU-PF, casting a chill over relations between Pretoria and ZANU-PF for some time.
ZANU-PF stepped up regional diplomacy ahead of the summit and sent a delegation to Johannesburg headed by former information minister Jonathan Moyo to lobby.
Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara tempered expectations as to what might emerge from the SADC talks on Zimbabwe and the impact that might have in Harare.
"It is essentially a progress-report meeting where the Zimbabweans through the facilitator are sharing with the SADC leaders on the progress in the country," Mutambara said. "We don't expect a silver bullet to come out of this summit - in other words, Zimbabweans must realize at the end of the day the buck stops with us as Zimbabweans.
"There is no way SADC is going to provide answers for us," he continued. "We are the providers of those answers. There is no way we are going to outsource the management of our national affairs to foreigners. Foreigners can only help us as we move on."
Earlier, representatives of Zimbabwean political parties and civil society organizations marched to the summit venue in Sandton, Johannesburg, urging the regional leaders to press Harare for a road map leading to free and fair elections.
Speaking on behalf of non-governmental organizations, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition Regional Director Dewa Mavhinga called on the SADC leaders not to allow elections to take place in Zimbabwe without completion of the road map reform itinerary.
Kumbirai Muchemwa, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change Formation of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, called for an end to political violence.
Spokesman Busani Bhalagwe of the Zimbabwe African National Union challenged SADC to reprimand Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF for causing chaos and violence.
Sipho Moyo, a spokeswoman for the MDC formation of Industry Minister Welshman Ncube, called on SADC to discourage President Mugabe from calling snap elections in the absence of reforms, saying this would lead to chaos in the country.
Police ordered protesters to disperse around midday following scuffles between backers of the MDC and the Mthwakazi Liberation Front, Benedict Nhlapho reported.
Though the Zimbabwe discussions among SADC leaders seemed likely to run well into the evening, Zimbabwean political leaders were to head back to Harare late Saturday to attend the burial Sunday of liberation icon Edgar Tekere, who died this week.