Obama, Zuma take on Mugabe

HARARE - President Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe’s seemingly intractable political crisis will feature large in discussions between South African president Jacob Zuma and his visiting American counterpart Barack Obama this weekend.

The US president, who is on a three-nation visit to Africa, arrived in South Africa yesterday and will be in that country until Sunday before moving on to Tanzania — the final leg of his trip.

A well-placed government source in Pretoria said yesterday that it was certain that Zimbabwe and the country’s forthcoming elections would form a large part of the discussions between Zuma and Obama, in addition to talks aimed at boosting trade ties between Pretoria and Washington.

“Both President Zuma and President Obama have been seized with the Zimbabwe political crisis for some time now, in their own respective ways. They are anxious that the current roadmap to elections and democracy yields a less toxic body politic that will restore the country’s standing within the international community.

“In that light, a discussion on Zimbabwe and its political problems is a certainty, in the spirit of trying to assist the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe,” the sources said.

Ben Rhodes, the American deputy National Security Advisor, told Voice Of America on Thursday that the contrast between the state of democracy in SA and Senegal, two of the three African countries on Obama’s itinerary during his first trip to the continent since 2009, and Zimbabwe on the other hand “could not be clearer”.

He said Zimbabwe’s political environment had been marked by “deeply undemocratic practices that have been pursued in the past, (as well as) very questionable elections, crackdowns on independent media and civil society”.

Rhodes said the US position on Zimbabwe “is going to be that (the upcoming harmonised) election has to be free, fair, and credible, and there has to be a means of establishing that that is the case”.

While Rhodes did not mention any specific actions or policies Obama might propose regarding Zimbabwe, in his discussions with Zuma, it is understood that a free and fair election in Zimbabwe was likely to prompt positive changes to America’s policy towards Zimbabwe.

On its part, Zuma’s office said yesterday it was ready to receive Obama for talks.

“This is a significant visit which will take political, economic, and people-to-people relations between the two countries to a higher level, while also enhancing co-operation between the US and the African continent at large.”

Obama’s visit went ahead despite the critical health condition of former president Nelson Mandela. The American president is accompanied by his family and a business delegation.

He will meet Zuma and a Cabinet delegation, including Economic Development, State Security and Health ministers, at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

Speaking in Senegal, Obama on Thursday hailed Mandela as a hero and said his legacy would endure forever.