SOUTH African President Thabo Mbeki is expected in Harare today to meet President Robert Mugabe over the spiralling political violence and the potentially explosive presidential election run-off as pressure mounts on him to find a solution to the deepening crisis.
The meeting is expected to be tense as Mbeki is under growing pressure at home and abroad to break the worsening electoral deadlock and secure an economic recovery plan in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe and Mbeki may seem uneasy bedfellows, but biographers argue that Mbeki has an â€œatavistic loyaltyâ€ to Zimbabweâ€™s 84-year-old leader.
Mbeki paid an ill-fated flying visit to Zimbabwe last month when he said there was â€œno crisisâ€ here, sparking off an outburst of criticism from all over the world.
His damage-limitation bid later, saying he meant there was no â€œelectoral crisisâ€ as a run-off would resolve the stalemate, failed to quell the crescendo of censure.
Sources said Mbeki would raise the problem of political violence, inter-party talks and the run-off with Mugabe.
The run-off is unlikely to take place within the scheduled 21 days. Sources said the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), which met over the issue on Tuesday, would need at least 40 days to organise the run-off.
ZEC chair George Chiweshe seemed to confirm this when he said this week: â€œIf the 21 days are not enough we have powers to extend.â€
Marwick Khumalo, who led the Pan African Parliamentary mission to observe Zimbabweâ€™s March 29 elections, said Chiweshe had told him the run-off would be delayed, but â€œnot for longer than 12 monthsâ€.
Government has suggested it could be delayed by up to a year.
Mbeki is concerned about political violence and would tackle the issue in his meeting with Mugabe, it is understood.
Mbeki last Friday told African religious leaders in Pretoria that he would send a team to investigate increasing reports of violence.
He then dispatched a group of retired army generals led by Lt-Gen Gilbert Lebeko Ramano, former South African army chief in the combined defence forces, to Harare on Sunday to probe cases of violence.
The group has met government officials, Zanu PF and main opposition MDC members, civil society and religious leaders.
Sources said the team has gathered massive and compelling evidence of violence.
It said this has partly prompted Mbeki to meet Mugabe to deal with the emergency.
The African Union and Sadc this week sent envoys to meet Mugabe over these problems. The AU discussed the situation this week in Tanzania. The UN and EU are also seized with the crisis.
On Monday Mbeki sent his mediation team on Zimbabwe led by South African Local Government minister Sydney Mufamadi to meet Mugabe and ZEC officials.
The team, that also included Director in the Presidency Reverend Frank Chikane and presidential legal advisor Mujanku Gumbi also met MDC faction leaders separately in South Africa on Tuesday.
Sources said Mbeki is pushing for a free and fair run-off while keeping options for a negotiated settlement in Zimbabwe open.
Mbekiâ€™s other envoy on Zimbabwe, Kingsley Mamabolo, who was in the country last week, said this week conditions did not exist for a free and fair run-off. Khumalo also said the same thing.
This view is shared by many in Zimbabwe who are shocked by the prevailing climate of fear and political violence.
The MDC claims at least 20 of its supporters have been killed, but government denies some of the murders were politically-motivated.
Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono said a pre-run-off pact was needed to guarantee a peaceful and secure election environment.
Tsvangirai is yet to officially confirm entry into the run-off, although he is almost certain to take part conditionally.
He wants a tranquil environment that guarantees Mugabe will accept the results. Mugabe told Senegalese Foreign minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio last week he would accept defeat but also urged Tsvangirai to do the same.Â
However, Mbekiâ€™s mediation has run into problems with main opposition leader Tsvangiraiâ€™s faction asking him to step aside, saying he is not an honest broker.
Mbeki has ignored that and is pressing ahead. Sadc has said it supports him, although the body is divided over this.
Sources said Mbekiâ€™s team met with Mugabe to find out when the run-off would be held and whether government and ZEC were prepared.
ZEC is said to be not yet ready due to lack of money and logistical capacity.
Sources said US$60 million is needed to fund the run-off.
The other problem is schools which are used as polling stations and teachers who function as polling officers are currently open and mostly working.
While Mbeki and his mediators might make progress with other groups, they could have serious problems with the MDC.
The MDC fell out with Mbeki after last yearâ€™s talks after he said dialogue had succeeded when the opposition thought it had failed.
Mbekiâ€™s view was that the parties had reached a â€œsubstantive agreementâ€ on all main issues and this was a step forward, although implementation was not done.
The MDC said the talks were a failure because they did not achieve main objectives, a new constitution and postponement of elections from March to June.
They also objected to Mugabe arbitrarily announcing the election date contrary to the Mauritius terms.
On January 15, Mbeki met Mugabe and Tsvangirai in Harare but failed to break the deadlock on the Constitution and date of elections which led to the collapse of the talks.
Between January 17 and 29, Mbeki tried in vain to persuade Mugabe to meet Tsvangirai to resolve the issues.
On February 13 Mufamadi, Chikane and Gumbi travelled to Harare and held separate meetings with the two negotiating teams, but that did not achieve anything as Mugabe had already proclaimed the election date on January 25, effectively killing off the talks.
Todayâ€™s meeting could be critical in determining Mbekiâ€™s future role in Zimbabwe.
By Dumisani Muleya