South Africa's president says Zimbabwe elections must be 'free and fair'

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa: Zimbabwe's elections must be free and fair next year and economic recovery in the troubled country will only be achieved by a government viewed as legitimate by all its citizens, South Africa's president said Sunday.

Thabo Mbeki heads the regional mediation process between Zimbabwe's government and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Mbeki said the parties had agreed that a particular focus of the talks would be on elections scheduled for March 2008.

"So it is important that when those elections take place the results should not be contested," he told reporters in Pretoria.

"You must have elections in Zimbabwe that are free and fair and therefore produce a government that will be accepted by all the people of Zimbabwe as a legitimate government emerging out of a democratic process."

Mbeki has long been criticized for advocating a policy of quiet diplomacy toward neighboring Zimbabwe, while others have called for more forceful action. But he received a mandate earlier this year from the Southern African Development Community to head talks following a brutal clampdown on opposition leaders by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's government.

The negotiations, however, are under a media blackout and little detail of the process has emerged.

Earlier this month, South Africa denied talks had collapsed following reports that Mugabe had dumped Mbeki as a mediator and ordered his two key negotiators to boycott negotiations.

Zimbabwe is reeling under the worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1980, with official inflation of 4,500 percent, the highest in the world.

A government edict to slash all prices by around 50 percent last month has left shelves bare of corn meal, bread, meat, eggs, milk and other staples and led to acute gasoline shortages.

Some 5,000 executives, businessmen and managers — just one of them a lesser known ruling party senator — have been arrested and fined for defying the edict.

Mugabe, 83, blames Western sanctions and rejects criticism that the meltdown is the result of mismanagement and the often-violent seizures of thousands of white-owned farms he ordered beginning in 2000.

Mbeki said Zimbabwe's economic recovery was a "major challenge" and "would have to be led by a government whose legitimacy is not contested."

Concerns have been raised about a flood of Zimbabweans crossing into South Africa and other neighboring countries to flee the economic collapse. An estimated 2-3 million Zimbabweans have immigrated to South Africa since the downturn began seven years ago.

Mbeki acknowledged that South Africa was affected by the situation in Zimbabwe.

"Zimbabwe is our neighbor. So indeed, we, South Africa, inevitably would carry the biggest burden of the consequences of any negative development in Zimbabwe," he said.

Zimbabwe government mouthpiece The Sunday Mail reported, meanwhile, that the independent Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries has called for "a cease-fire in the price war."

Callisto Jakonya, head of the organization, said manufacturers were ready to negotiate with the government over the viability of industry and how to stay in business.

Tafadzwa Musarara, chairman of the Grain Millers Association, told the paper many members of his group, responsible for processing 75 percent of the nation's grain supplies, faced ruin.

The government's fixed price for the cornmeal staple was half the cost of producing it, causing buying sprees and worsened shortages when cornmeal stocks became available, he said.

"These distortions need to be corrected immediately," he said.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change has described the price cuts as a ploy to shore up ruling party support before national elections scheduled early next year.

One faction of the divided opposition announced Saturday it abandoned plans to fight a unified election campaign with its rival group led by founder Morgan Tsvangirai, dealing another blow to embattled opposition supporters facing a split vote.

The Sunday Mail also reported that a government minister, the most senior official jailed for alleged corruption in a purported drive against graft, was acquitted of the charges three years after his arrest.

Chris Kureneri, 58, was jailed in 2004 for allegedly breaching foreign currency laws in the building of a seaside mansion in the South African city of Cape Town.

He spent 17 months in prison before being held under house arrest.

The paper said High Court Judge Susan Mavangira cleared Kureneri on Friday on seven alleged corruption charges involving the illegal "externalization" of hard currency while at the finance ministry.

He was convicted on one charge of breaching the nation's single nationality laws by holding a Canadian passport found during investigations into the corruption allegations, a comparatively minor offense carrying the penalty of a fine.

A sentencing hearing to determine the fine will be held later, the newspaper said.

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