- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2003

JOHANNESBURG — Tough talk from Washington ahead of a visit to Africa by President Bush next week is creating problems for South African President Thabo Mbeki, whose refusal to speak out on Zimbabwe and other regional crises stands in sharp contrast.

Mr. Bush used his speech at the biennial meeting of the Corporate Council on Africa to call for the resignation of Liberian leader Charles Taylor and the establishment of an interim authority in Congo, where human rights groups say more than 3 million people have died in a long-running civil war.

Mr. Bush also criticized Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s government, which the United States and other Western powers have refused to recognize after fraud-tainted elections last year.

Also last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described Mr. Mugabe as a “tyrant” and called on neighboring South Africa to adopt a tougher stance on Zimbabwe.

On Monday, it was announced that Mr. Powell will accompany Mr. Bush to South Africa.

A spokesman for Mr. Mbeki’s government rejected Mr. Powell’s comments and said South Africa would maintain its policy of “quiet diplomacy” toward Harare.

A source in Mr. Mbeki’s ruling African National Congress told The Washington Times that the government was deeply divided about Mr. Powell’s remarks as well as President Bush’s upcoming visit, the second to sub-Saharan Africa by a U.S. president in office. President Clinton’s was the first.

“This is going to be a tough couple of weeks for Mbeki,” the source said. “He will have to smile and will no doubt be delighted to be seen hosting the world’s most powerful leader, but, behind the scenes, he will need to work hard to hold his party and even his close supporters together.”

“The South Africans see this continent as their own domain, and the comments by Bush and Powell, calling so directly for change in Liberia, Congo and Zimbabwe, have shocked a lot of people who are starting to realize that their own refusal to take tough action on thorny issues, especially Zimbabwe, has created a vacuum, which other countries, like the U.S., are moving to fill.”

Nelson Mandela has said he does not expect to meet Mr. Bush after the former South African president opposed U.S.-led war on Iraq. South Africa came out strongly against the war, and recent talk about intervention in Liberia is expected to cause concern in Pretoria.

An antiwar coalition of 300 groups has applied to the South African police for permission to mount nationwide protests when Mr. Bush arrives in the country on Tuesday.

Mr. Bush’s comment that in Zimbabwe “the freedom and dignity of the nation is under assault” is likely to cause the most difficulty in meetings with Mr. Mbeki, who has refused to publicly criticize Mr. Mugabe.

Mr. Mugabe’s economic policies, including a coercive land-reform program, have led to the fall of the local currency unit from 58 to the U.S. dollar three years ago to 2,700 to the dollar at present.

The United Nations estimates that 70 percent of the country’s 12 million people live under conditions of famine and that more than 2 million black Zimbabweans have sought refuge in South Africa.

Despite several South African initiatives to encourage Mr. Mugabe, 79, to either step down or enter negotiations with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change, there has been little progress.

At the beginning of June, the MDC led a weeklong strike and called for new elections, but the government responded by charging Mr. Tsvangirai with treason and jailing him for two weeks before he was released on bail.

Mr. Tsvangirai said in an interview that the presence of the U.S. leader in Africa would help draw international attention to Zimbabwe’s plight.

In contrast to South Africa’s position, the governments of Uganda, Botswana and Senegal — also on Mr. Bush’s itinerary — have made clear they do not support Mr. Mugabe or his policies. President Festus Mogae of Botswana repeatedly has called for a return to democracy in Zimbabwe and said in a recent television interview that the country’s problems were caused by a “drought of good governance.”

The U.S. government has indicated that it might be willing to underwrite substantial aid for a recovery program in Zimbabwe if Mr. Mugabe allows internationally supervised elections in which he does not stand as a candidate. But the only South African response to the idea came from Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad, who told a local newspaper, “We would like to discuss this with the U.S. and find out what they mean.”

Mr. Bush also will visit Nigeria, where he will deliver the keynote address at a summit on cooperation between Africa and the United States.

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