But with President Robert Mugabe, ruler for the last 28 years who is determined to stay there indefinitely, and pro-democracy leader Morgan Tsvangirai, regarded as the winner of national elections last March, both entrenched in their positions, analysts are forecasting that this fourth summit of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) will again end in failure.
But they say impetus for progress may come from South Africa, the continent’s most powerful nation which currently holds the chairmanship of the SADC. Pressure is growing for President Kgalema Motlanthe to get tough with 84-year-old Mugabe, as leading voices in South Africa accuse the regional body of being responsible for the stalemate, and all the problems that it holds.
Once Africa’s second most prosperous and developed country after South Africa, Zimbabwe is in the closing stages of economic collapse, with millions of migrants pouring into neighbouring states, and in the midst of a cholera epidemic that has also crossed the border with the migrants.
On Monday last week, the presidents of South Africa and of Mozambique tried to mediate between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, but the 12-hour meeting ended "inconclusively."
The two men signed an agreement to share power in a government of national unity on September 15 after three months of negotiations, but there has been no progress to toward implementing the agreement since then.
Mugabe’s first step after the signing was to allocate portfolios, taking the most important ones, including defence, home affairs which includes police and state security, and justice, which has control over the country’s courts.
Later he went on to appoint provincial governors and a new attorney-general from the ranks of his ZANU(PF) party and since October his secret police have arrested nearly 30 activists from the Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party and civil society groups, holding them illegally for weeks and torturing many of them.
All the steps were in violation of the treaty, the MDC said.
Tsvangirai, who secured the most votes in the presidential elections and is head of the MDC which in March won parliamentary elections, has refused to take up his agreed position as prime minister under Mugabe as president until cabinet posts are equitably distributed, the gubernatorial and attorney-general posts are reversed and the detained activists are released.
Mugabe has turned an implacable deaf ear to the demands. And so Monday’s meeting will begin after a statement by Patrick Chinamasa, Mugabe’s spokesman on the negotiations, saying at the weekend that "our position is that we will not meet any new demands made by the MDC."
MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti said in a statement on Saturday that the party was "committed to the … agreement, subject to the resolution of our demands." These, he said, were "a logical platform for any government of national unity," and the MDC would "not allow ZANU(PF) to trap us in the cul de sac of their sterile process."
SADC appears to be equally locked into a position, made late last year, that the agreement should be implemented "forthwith" and that the MDC should settle its grievances afterwards. Mugabe is anxious that Monday’s meeting endorses this, and is reported to be pressing for SADC to give him the go ahead to implement the power-sharing agreement without the MDC.
But a growing number of powerful voices in South Africa are now raised for its government to force Mugabe to incorporate the MDC’s demands or face recriminations, such as the shutting its borders.
One of these voices is Graca Machel, wife of South Africa’s revered ex-president Nelson Mandela and a member of the Elders, the informal group of globally respected figures, who late last week declared that Mugabe had "lost completely any kind of legitimacy" after the last nine years of violent repression.
Thousands of lives could have been saved if SADC had not allowed itself to be bullied by Mugabe, she said. "We trusted too long," she said.
"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."