HARARE, August 9 – South African President Thabo Mbeki headed to Harare on Saturday for meetings with the country’s political rivals as the parties draw closer to a power-sharing deal to end Zimbabwe’s political and economic crises.
The Herald newspaper quoted President Robert Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba as saying that Mbeki’s visit was "to hold consultations with the principals of negotiations."
"This is an important milestone that has been registered in the inter-party dialogue," Charamba was reported as saying.
"He is going to meet the three principals basically to update them on the progress made so far and to consult on how to take the dialogue forward."
The visit by Mbeki, who mediates in negotiations between Mugabe’s party and the Zimbabwe opposition, comes after more than two weeks of discussions in South Africa between representatives of the rival sides.
It was unclear, however, whether the meetings with Mugabe, opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara leader of a smaller faction of the MDC, would be held separately or in one session.
A source close to the negotiations said: "We are not yet sure how the meetings will go.”
"There are things which were referred to the principals and need to be sorted out before President Mbeki comes," the source told AFP.
"At the moment there is no clear position."
The three political rivals signed a memorandum of understanding last month to pave way for a power-sharing agreement to end the country’s political and economic crises.
The country’s woes worsened after international pressure intensified following Mugabe’s re-election in a one-candidate run-off presidential election boycotted by Tsvangirai.
Negotiators from the three parties returned to Harare on Friday after marathon talks amid reports from South Africa that a deal was in the offing that would lead to a government of national unity, with Tsvangirai as executive prime minister and Mugabe’s powers as president would be diminished.
But Mugabe on Thursday trashed the reports as "utter nonsense" although he said the talks were proceeding smoothly.
The talks have been hailed as a possible solution to the crises facing the country, which has the world’s highest inflation rate at 2.2 million percent.
"The dialogue demonstrates that we share a common heritage and it is in our best interests to preserve that heritage and build on it," said an editorial in The Herald newspaper.
"It is with this in mind that the on-going dialogue between ZANU-PF and the two opposition MDC parties must be appreciated by every single Zimbabwean."
Once a regional economic model, which used to export its staple maize, Zimbabwe’s economy has been on a downturn over the past 10 years with inflation now officially at 2.2 million percent and nearly a quarter of the population in need of food aid.
Critics blame the meltdown on land reforms in which the government seized land from white farmers ostensibly for redistribution to landless blacks, most of whom lacked the means and skills to farm.
But the government says the sagging economic performance was a result of sanctions imposed by western countries following the 2002 presidential elections, which the opposition and western observers charged were rigged to give Mugabe victory.