Mugabe to chill summit?

Botswana said its president will not attend the southern African summit because Mugabe will be there, and once-supportive South Africans are to hold an anti-Mugabe march when the leaders meet.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) was to focus on efforts to fight poverty through regional development through cross-border cooperation – the two-day meeting is to close on Sunday with the announcement of a free trade agreement. But such economic good news was overshadowed by political trouble in Zimbabwe that was creating tension within the 14-member bloc known as SADC.

Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai met with key southern African leaders in Johannesburg on the eve of the summit. Aide George Sibotshiwe said Tsvangirai was briefing them on talks aimed at forming a transitional unity government being mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki, who takes over SADC’s rotating chair at the summit.

Mugabe’s party says the talks, on hold since Tsvangirai walked out on Tuesday, could resume on the sidelines of the summit. But Sibotshiwe said prospects for more talks depended "on the sincerity of Robert Mugabe."

The rhetoric on both sides has sharpened in recent days.

On Thursday, officials at the Zimbabwean capital’s airport briefly confiscated the passports of Tsvangirai and two of his top aides, delaying their departure for South Africa by a day. Tsvangirai’s party said such "antics" called Mugabe’s commitment to a negotiated settlement into question, and said SADC, the African Union and the broader international community should "take a strong position against Mugabe."

The Herald, a newspaper considered to be a Mugabe mouthpiece, derided Tsvangirai’s claim to leadership on Thursday, accusing him of "parroting" Western arguments.

Tsvangirai beat Mugabe and two other candidates in March 29 presidential elections, and since has insisted that any power-sharing agreement recognise that result.

However, the official tally did not give Tsvangirai the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a run-off. He withdrew from the June run-off, citing state-sponsored violence against his supporters.

Mugabe held the widely denounced run-off anyway and claimed an overwhelming victory.

Mugabe reportedly wants to keep his authority as president, while Tsvangirai reportedly wants executive powers as prime minister, including the right to chair Cabinet meetings.

Botswana, which has had to accommodate refugees from the political and economic crisis in neighboring Zimbabwe, had called on SADC to bar Mugabe from the summit. Other members refused to take what would have been an extraordinary step.

Friday, Botswana President Seretse Ian Khama’s government issued a statement saying Khama would not attend the summit, but would send the foreign minister.

Botswana said that with power-sharing negotiations still under way, "the authorities in Harare … should not be represented at the political level at any SADC summit as that would be equal to giving them legitimacy."

Presidents in Botswana have respected their constitution’s two-term limit and the country is proud of its reputation as a stable democracy that has seen several peaceful transitions since independence from Britain in 1966. That contrasts sharply with the turmoil in Zimbabwe where Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, is accused of jailing and killing opponents to hold onto his seat.

The mounting crisis in Zimbabwe has cracked the traditional solidarity of African leaders.

Kenya, Liberia and Zambia have condemned Mugabe’s administration.

In the past, Mugabe has been cheered by ordinary South Africans who embraced his fiery anti-colonial rhetoric. But this weekend, the powerful leftist Congress of South African Trade Unions was joining labour and human rights groups from across the region in an anti-Mugabe protest march at the summit. Zwelinzima Vavi, leader of the trade unions congress, recently called Zimbabwe an island of "dictatorship surrounded by a sea of democracy in our region." – Sapa-AP