HARARE, July 22 – Negotiators from Zimbabwe’s opposition and ruling party were expected to head to South Africa on Tuesday for the first round of talks aimed at ending the country’s months-long political crisis.
A day after veteran President Robert Mugabe and long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai signed a deal agreeing on the framework of the talks, their representatives were due to gather at an undisclosed venue under mediation overseen by South African President Thabo Mbeki.
Both sides agreed in their memorandum of understanding inked in Harare to observe a media blackout during the course of their negotiations which should be wrapped up within a fortnight.
However a Harare-based source in Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party revealed it had been agreed to make a prompt start.
"We have agreed that the talks begin tomorrow (Tuesday). We are all travelling to South Africa tomorrow," said the official on condition of anonymity.
A spokesman for a smaller MDC faction, which will also be represented at the talks, confirmed late Monday that the negotiations were due to begin Tuesday.
"Definitely we are travelling tomorrow and talks will start tomorrow," Edwin Mushoriwa, a spokesman for MDC faction leader Arthur Mutambara, told AFP.
At a ceremony in Harare overseen by Mbeki, Mugabe and Tsvangirai shook hands in their first meeting in a decade — albeit with few signs of warmth.
"We sit here in order for us to chart a new way, a new way of political interaction," said Mugabe, who won a controversial run-off presidential election last month which was boycotted by Tsvangirai.
Tsvangirai for his part said it was time to put the "bitterness" behind him and said he was committed to finding a solution with his old rival.
Mbeki, who has faced heavy criticism for a previous lack of obvious progress in his mediation efforts, said all parties were "committed to trying to complete this process as quickly as possible."
The meeting between the two men was their first since Tsvangirai formed the MDC in 1999.
The former trade union leader has twice been charged with treason and needed hospital treatment for head injuries last year as he was assaulted by members of the security forces ahead of an anti-government rally.
The pair’s bitterness hit new heights during the course of the election run-off when Tsvangirai was detained on five separate occasions while campaigning and his number two, Tendai Biti, arrested for treason.
Ignoring widespread calls to shelve the ballot, Mugabe went ahead and staged the poll, winning by a predictable landslide.
Once seen as a post-colonial success story, the former British colony’s economy has been in meltdown since Mugabe began a land reform programme at the turn of the decade and annual inflation now stands at some 2.2 million percent.