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Monday, 10 September, 2001, 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK
Does South Africa hold the key?
Robert Mugabe and Thabo Mbeki
Some want Mbeki to stop supplying power to Harare
By BBC News Online's Joseph Winter

Southern Africa's leaders have finally realised that the Zimbabwe crisis is not just an internal matter but that it is affecting their own countries too.

Opening the Harare meeting, Malawi's President, Bakili Muluzi, said: "Our major concern is that the current increasing political instability could create a negative image for critical direct foreign investment in the region."

Mr Muluzi, current chair of the Southern African Development Community, was speaking on behalf of all 14 member-countries, but regional heavyweight South Africa has already been bearing the brunt of the sentiment which lumps the entire region into one risky basket.

Zimbabweans cross a bridge into South Africa
Crossing into South Africa is the only hope for many
It has the same racially skewed pattern of land ownership as Zimbabwe and every new downturn across the Limpopo means another battering for the Rand on the money markets.

South Africa is also the only country with the economic clout to persuade Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to stop the violence on white-owned farms and against the political opposition.

Zimbabwe's rapidly-shrinking economy means that it is unable to pay its foreign currency bills for imports of fuel and electricity.

Promissory notes

Commercial suppliers are now demanding cash up-front, but South Africa's utility corporations are keeping the taps open on the basis of promissory notes from Harare.

Some groups have called for Pretoria to stop this generosity, hoping that hardships caused by a lack of power and petrol would stir Zimbabweans to rise up against Mr Mugabe.

Black-outs and petrol queues have already become a way of life in Harare.

Harare petrol queue
Queuing for petrol has become a way of life

President Thabo Mbeki has refused to take such an extreme step and criticised people in "far-off" London who make these demands.

He realises that shutting Zimbabwe down and the possibility of even worse political unrest would mean a massive influx of migrants into South Africa.

But he also knows that something must be done - and for the same reason.

Crocodile-infested

Border police in Messina already deport 100 illegal Zimbabwean immigrants a day - three times more than they used to.

The Zimbabweans have given up the impossible task of trying to find jobs at home and are willing to risk crossing the crocodile-infested Limpopo River to find work in South Africa.

And of course some landless South Africans want to copy Zimbabwe's farm invasions - a prospect which really scares Mr Mbeki.

South African squatter
South African squatters have been evicted

The South African leader has so far pursued a policy of "quiet diplomacy" and refused to publicly criticise Mr Mugabe.

In a recent BBC interview, he admitted that this policy had failed and the Harare meeting will be Mr Mbeki's first opportunity to demonstrate a new tactic.

While South Africa is the only individual country with the power to influence Harare, it would prefer to use that influence with the backing of the regional body, SADC, rather than in isolation.

Foreign farm-workers

Namibia is a close political ally of Mr Mugabe, having joined him in sending troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo and President Sam Nujoma could exert some moral influence on him.

Many of the thousands of workers employed by white farmers and evicted by the self-styled war veterans are of Malawian and Mozambican origin.

Most were born in Zimbabwe and think of there as "home", so Lilongwe and Maputo are not coming under a great deal of domestic pressure to end the invasions.

However in border areas, some poverty-stricken Mozambicans have been earning their living by crossing over to work on white-owned farms.

Proud

Mozambique's Joachim Chissano would like this source of employment to start up again and does have the lever of supplying electricity to Harare.

Mr Mugabe is a very proud man and he has grown used to rebuffing international criticism in recent years.

Colonel Gaddafi
Mugabe is spending a lot of time with Gaddafi

If SADC leaders follow up Nigeria by taking a hard-line stance on Zimbabwe, it would become virtually impossible for Mr Mugabe to carry on claiming that he is a champion of African nationalism, fighting the vestiges of colonialism.

But whether he takes much notice of anything other than the prospect of South Africa demanding to be paid for power supplies is another matter.

Mr Mugabe seems to be spending more and more time with Libya's Colonel Gaddafi these days. He might feel that Libya can supply all the diplomatic and economic support, especially oil, he needs.

He may also have asked for a few tips on how to survive sanctions.

See also:

06 Aug 01 | Africa
Mbeki admits Zimbabwe failure
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