HARARE, July 21 – President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pledged a new chapter in their bitter relationship Monday as they agreed to hold fully-fledged talks on ending Zimbabwe’s political crisis.,
At a ceremony in Harare overseen by long-time mediator South African President Thabo Mbeki, Mugabe and Tsvangirai shook hands and said it was time to work together after one of the most bitter periods in the country’s history.
"We sit here in order for us to chart a new way, a new way of political interaction," said Mugabe.
"We must act now … as Zimbabweans, think as Zimbabweans and act as Zimbabweans," said Mugabe.
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.
"We are committed to ensuring that the process of negotiation becomes succesful," he said. "We want a better Zimbabwe."
Although copies of the memorandum of understanding were not immediately available, Mbeki said that all parties wanted a rapid resolution to their dispute sparked by elections in March.
"It commits the negotiating parties to an intense programme of work to try and finalise the negotiations as quickly as possible," said Mbeki.
"All the Zimbabwean parties recognise the urgency of the matters they are discussing and all are committed to trying to complete this process as quickly as possible."
Commentators have said that the biggest sticking point on resolving a crisis sparked by disputed elections will be the reluctance of either man to accept a position seen as inferior to the other.
But comments by Mugabe that there was an acceptance of a need to amend the former British colony’s constitution will fuel speculation that they may come to an agreement similar to that which recently brought an end to a post-election dispute in Kenya with the creation of a new post of prime minister.
"We agreed … that our constitution as it is should be amended variously," said Mugabe.
The meeting between the two men was their first since Tsvangirai formed his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) at the end of 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 a recent election which saw Tsvangirai push Mugabe into second place in a first round of voting on March 29.
The MDC leader subsequently pulled out of a second round of voting at the end of last month after dozens of his party’s supporters were killed in attacks that he blamed on pro-Mugabe thugs.
Ignoring widespread calls to shelve the ballot, Mugabe went ahead and staged the poll, winning a predictable landslide victory.
The 84-year-old has ruled the former British colony since independence in 1980.
Once seen as a post-colonial success story, Zimbabwe’s economy has been in meltdown since Mugabe began a controversial land reform programme at the turn of the decade and inflation now stands at some 2.2 million percent.