Regional powerhouse South Africa is urging Zimbabwean leaders to resolve political tensions in time for elections expected next year in the troubled country, a spokesman for President Jacob Zuma said Saturday.
In an interview, spokesman Vincent Magwenya said Zuma made that point to Zimbabwe's delegation at a mini-summit earlier in the week. It was a sign of growing impatience with the slow pace of reform since a coalition was formed nearly a year ago between President Robert Mugabe and his longtime rival Morgan Tsvangirai, who is prime minister in the unity government.
Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe for three decades, was able to remain president under the coalition deal, despite accusations he has trampled democracy and ruined a once vibrant economy.
Magwenya said there was reason for optimism in announcements from Zimbabwean leaders of preliminary agreements and their pledges to continue negotiating on some of the most contentious issues. But Zuma, who took office in South Africa last year, is concerned that tensions don't undermine 2011 elections.
"The Zimbabweans have set themselves a deadline of 2011 (for a vote). On our side, that is a reasonable deadline," Magwenya said. "That's why President Zuma is quite keen to see them implementing those agreements. They now need to move quickly."
In late 2009, Tsvangirai's and Mugabe's aides announced that agreements on commissions to oversee human rights, the media and elections had been reached. But remaining disagreements are among the stickiest — over the appointment of provincial governors, the central bank chief and attorney general; charges from Tsvangirai's party that Mugabe supporters continue to abuse human rights; and charges from Mugabe's party that Tsvangirai's group has done too little to persuade the international community to lift sanctions against Mugabe and his top loyalists.
"For the sake of the people of Zimbabwe who have suffered a great deal, as well as for the sake of stability in the region, Zimbabwe cannot be in a permanent state of crisis," Magwenya said. "The region cannot be consumed by one country for such a long time."
Zimbabwe's economy has improved since the coalition was formed, but continuing political impasse makes the future uncertain. Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have fled their collapsed economy to look for work in South Africa. The influx has caused tensions, sparking concerns about a renewed outbreak of widespread violence against foreigners in South Africa.
Such violence left more than 70 people dead in 2008, with most of the attacks in shack settlements where poor South Africans saw Zimbabweans and others as competition for scarce resources. There were also scattered outbreaks in 2009, but none as deadly as those the year before.
South African and other regional leaders had pushed for the coalition, following a series of inconclusive elections marred by violence blamed on Mugabe's loyalists. Tsvangirai has said that Zuma's predecessor took too soft a line on Mugabe. Thabo Mbeki, now replaced by Zuma as regional point man on Zimbabwe, had argued that pushing Mugabe too hard could backfire.
In what was seen as a sign of stepped-up intervention, Zuma appointed two advisers and a special Zimbabwe envoy in November to work with politicians in Zimbabwe. Magwenya said the team would be returning soon to Zimbabwe.