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Monday, 14 January, 2002, 18:29 GMT
Neighbours fear Zimbabwe contagion
South Africa's leaders are struggling with a paradox.
Their neighbour, Zimbabwe, is experiencing political turmoil as its leader - Robert Mugabe, president for more than two decades - faces a difficult election in March.
On the political level, the tradition in the region is that internal matters are a country's own affairs.
Added to that, Zimbabwe represents one of the front-line states, those who faced down apartheid-era South Africa on their southern borders and lived to tell the tale.
But the old custom of support through thick and thin is starting to break down, because however much Zimbabwe wants to continue defining its problems as domestic ones, their effects are felt throughout the area.
So the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the 14-member grouping now meeting in Malawi's industrial capital Blantyre, finds itself in a tough spot.
After three years of taking land from white farmers and redistributing it, Zimbabwe's economy is a mess.
Inflation tops 100% a year, the Zimbabwean dollar is tumbling - a problem exacerbated by a ludicrously overvalued "official" rate and a thriving parallel market - and its output is collapsing.
The last budget, in October, acknowledged that three quarters of the citizens of what was the breadbasket of the region are now living in poverty, while the economy shrank by as much as 8% in 2001.
Inevitably, when this happens to the second largest economy in the region after South Africa, the knock-on effects are huge.
One hurts, all hurt
The country's dearth of foreign currency means it cannot pay its bills or import goods from its neighbours.
Malawi's foreign minister, Lilian Patel, is under no illusions.
"To begin with, we are landlocked, and that makes us very vulnerable," she said, reflecting on Malawi's status as one of the poorest of SADC's members.
"Anything that happens to our neighbours happens to us."
The long tradition of border-crossing to trade and look for work also plays its part.
Malawians in particular work in large numbers in Zimbabwe, many of them now in the second or third generation.
But while the farm seizures in Zimbabwe take the land from white farmers and give it to government supporters, they also eject the existing workforce, all of whom are black and some of whom are Malawian.
Some return to Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. Others try to go back to Malawi, often with little idea where their relatives and roots are to be found.
And meanwhile, the distortion of cross-border trade and commerce continues. In Malawi, the kwacha is now seriously overvalued against the Zimbabwean dollar, encouraging massive smuggling, damaging exports and hurting local industry.
No end in sight
But beyond the "quiet diplomacy" which has thus far been the rule - and the admittedly exceptional experience of overt criticism which Mr Mugabe has so far had to sit through - there seems little prospect that the Blantyre meeting will produce practical benefits.
Officially, SADC members believe that sanctions - even the smart sanctions advocated by opposition leaders on Mr Mugabe and his cohorts rather than the country as a whole - will hit ordinary Zimbabweans too hard.
Behind the scenes, the real worry is that any further action could trigger a full-scale meltdown - which would not only exacerbate the knock-on effects, but bring millions of economic migrants flooding towards the borders.