Mandela's wife says Mugabe government illegitimate

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Graca Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, on Wednesday described Zimbabwe's government as illegitimate and said regional leaders had allowed hundreds of thousands of people to die needlessly in the African nation.

Zimbabwe is facing a humanitarian catastrophe as President Robert Mugabe and the opposition bicker over a stalled power-sharing deal. Rights groups say scores of opposition activists have been murdered, tortured and beaten.

"Any government that goes out and assaults its people, its citizens, it has lost completely any kind of legitimacy," Machel said at a news conference where Zimbabwean activists launched a hunger strike to pressure Mugabe and the SADC regional body.

Asked if the veteran Zimbabwean ruler, in power since independence in 1980, should step down, Machel said: "The people of Zimbabwe have already said so … the ballot has spoken."

The Mozambican-born Machel joined a growing list of prominent Africans who in the past year have criticised Mugabe’s authoritarian rule or called for the removal of his government.

Mugabe lost the first round of a presidential election last year to MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, but he won the second round overwhelmingly after Tsvangirai pulled out of the race, citing violence against his supporters.

For almost a decade South Africa and other nations in SADC (Southern African Development Community) have used quiet diplomacy to try to nudge Mugabe toward democratic reforms and halt Zimbabwe’s meltdown.

An apparent breakthrough was reached last September when Mugabe and Tsvangirai agreed to form a unity government, but the deal has unravelled over control of key ministries and many doubt it can be salvaged. 

In the meantime, food shortages have worsened and the healthcare system has all but collapsed, exposing the population to diseases such as HIV/AIDS and cholera, which has killed more than 2,100 people in recent months.

Machel, who was barred from entering Zimbabwe on a humanitarian visit late last year, said hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved had the leaders of SADC taken stronger action to end the crisis.

"We trusted too long. It’s time to tell our leaders we lay the lives of all those who passed on … in the hands of the SADC leaders because they took responsibility to stop the mess there," she said.

Machel, however, said she would not join the hunger strike and rotating fasts, which are due to last for three months.

A total of 55 activists have joined the protest, according to Kumi Naidoo, one of the hunger strikers.

The protesters are demanding, among other things, that SADC recognise that Mugabe’s government is illegitimate and a transitional authority be set up to implement the power-sharing deal if the deadlock continued past the end of February.