The Southern African Development Community (SADC) had asked Mbeki last week to spearhead efforts to resolve the crisis, which has deepened since Mugabe's violent crackdown on political opponents last month.

 

'Limited role'

 

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Mbeki dismissed suggestions that Zimbabwe's neighbours could force change in the country. "We don't have a big stick," he said.

 

He said a joint approach by African leaders could pave the way to a settlement.

   

Mbeki said his office had already been in contact with both factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Zanu-PF to draw up a negotiating framework for next year's elections, in which Mugabe has already been endorsed as the Zanu-PF candidate.

   

Mbeki said the talks would probably focus on MDC demands for legal and electoral reforms, including the strict media and security laws which critics say Mugabe has used to entrench his power in the country.

   

"I am quite clear from previous interactions with the MDC we have had they will raise questions ... like legislation affecting the media, legislation about holding of public meetings. 

 

"We will then engage Zanu-PF, saying it is necessary to respond to all of these. We may very well come to a stage later when they will have to sit together to agree ... [on] what they will do to create a climate conducive to free and fair elections."

 

Lukewarm strike

 
Rising prices with inflation at 1,700 per cent has
hit Zimbabweans hard [AFP]

A two-day national strike called by Zimbabwe unions to press for higher pay got under way on Tuesday, but to little effect.

Banks, offices and shops were open in capital Harare on Tuesday. Businesses were also reported to be operating normally in Bulawayo, the country's second-largest city.
 
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) had called the strike to press for a minimum workers' wage of a million Zimbabwe dollars ($4,000 on the official market but worth $50 on the black market), an end to the country's economic meltdown and for better access to Aids drugs.

Journalists who drove around Harare's industrial areas early on Tuesday found many firms operating as usual, and the normal hordes of job seekers waiting outside factory gates seeking employment in an economy already in freefall.

Union appeal

ZCTU officials were not immediately available for comment, but Lovemore Matombo, the union president, said he hoped workers would risk open defiance to protest against an economic crisis in which inflation has surged to 1,700 per cent, unemployment has reached more than 80 per cent and food and fuel shortages are frequent.

 

"We are quite aware that the Zimbabwean authorities will never treat us with kid gloves," he told SABC radio in neighbouring South Africa.

 

"But we are saying the suffering we are going through is even worse than the broken bones that are likely to come our way in the next two days."

  

Analysts say the ZCTU's calls for strikes over labour and social issues in recent years have largely failed due to government intimidation and workers' fears of losing their jobs.

Source: Agencies