- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 12, 2002

The United States must apply more pressure to Zimbabwe's southern African neighbors to force political and economic reforms on the government of President Robert Mugabe, a leading Zimbabwean dissident said yesterday.

"The people of Zimbabwe at this point are incapable of any meaningful resistance by themselves," said Ephraim Tapa, a former government workers' union leader forced into exile after he was arrested, tortured and left temporarily blinded by a government-backed militia group earlier this year.

"International pressure is critical and South Africa is the key," Mr. Tapa said in an interview. "If Mugabe was totally isolated by South Africa and its other African neighbors, he could not resist the call for free elections, the restoration of democracy and the upholding of human rights."

Mr. Tapa was in Washington with a delegation from the newly formed Save Zimbabwe, which bills itself as a nonpartisan group pressing for new democratic elections in Zimbabwe, where Mr. Mugabe has ruled since independence in 1980.

Relations between Washington and Harare have soured since parliamentary elections in March.

Walter H. Kansteiner III, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said in August that the Bush administration did not recognize the legitimacy of the Mugabe government, and both Britain and the United States have imposed targeted sanctions and travel bans on Mr. Mugabe and his allies.

The Mugabe government has imposed a number of restrictions on press freedom and political activity in the past year, even as the economy has collapsed and Zimbabwe deals with a regionwide drought.

Mr. Mugabe has also pursued a coercive land-redistribution program targeting the country's small but highly productive group of white farmers, which aid groups charge has disrupted planting and increased the risk of famine.

U.S. and private relief officials charge that Mr. Mugabe has exploited the food crisis for political gain, channeling grain and other aid to supporters while cutting off areas where the opposition is strong.

Save Zimbabwe officials agree.

Arnold Tsunga, national chairman of the democracy group Zim Rights and a member of the Save Zimbabwe delegation, said people are starving "because of the absence of democracy rather than the drought."

"As long as we don't have an acceptable democratic system at home, it's unlikely any amount of aid from the United States and other donor nations will alleviate our suffering," he said.

U.N. and private relief groups estimate that as much as half of Zimbabwe's 11 million people face severe food shortages in the coming months.

Although Mr. Kansteiner said in August that the United States planned to work with regional governments to "isolate" the Mugabe regime, South Africa and neighboring countries have resisted the effort.

South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who met with his Zimbabwean counterpart for talks yesterday, said in Pretoria that the focus should not be on past conflicts.

"Even if people thought Zimbabwe had made a mistake, we need to look at the future and what we do from here," she said.

"Obviously, if I go back to Zimbabwe now, that would be the end of me," he said.

"But we are very much aware that people are suffering, that there is unfinished business back home. Is doing nothing an option? For me, it is not."

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