PRETORIA, July 24: Talks began in earnest on Thursday on resolving Zimbabwe’s political crisis after President Robert Mugabe gave his senior lieutenants the final go-ahead to negotiate power-sharing with the opposition.

A spokesman for South African President Thabo Mbeki, the chief mediator between the two sides, confirmed the ruling ZANU-PF and opposition Movement for Democratic Change’s top negotiators were in place at a secret venue, two days after the initial scheduled start of their talks.

“Full-on talks are underway,” Mukoni Ratshitanga said, expressing confidence that they would lead to a swift conclusion even if not quite within an agreed two-week timeframe.

“We will finish in two weeks or just a bit after that,” he added.

Under the terms of a framework agreement signed on Monday, both sides are observing an official media blackout but it is understood that the talks are taking place in the South African capital Pretoria.

Although preliminary talks began on Tuesday, ZANU-PF’s negotiators Patrick Chinamasa and Nicholas Goche only flew out of Harare on Wednesday night after Mugabe chaired a meeting of his party’s politburo.

They were accompanied on the same plane by the MDC’s chief negotiator Tendai Biti, who still has a treason charge hanging over his head.

Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper said the politburo had discussed the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai on Monday which laid out the agenda for their talks.

“We met as the politburo to be briefed of the signing of the MoU and chart the way forward. The issues that came up were whether we accept that our people should continue in these negotiations,” said ZANU-PF’s deputy secretary for information and publicity Ephraim Masawi.

“We gave Comrade Chinamasa and Comrade Goche the green light for them to go ahead with the negotiations within the parameters signed by the principals.” Preliminary talks began earlier in the week when representatives of a smaller opposition faction arrived in South Africa.

While Mbeki is overseeing the talks, he was not present on Thursday as he was heading to France for a one-day summit.

The South African leader has been heavily criticised over the previous lack of progress in his mediation, a task handed to him by his peers in the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) last March.

A swift breakthrough in the talks would be a timely coup for Mbeki as he is hosting a SADC summit in the middle of next month. Already facing economic turmoil, Zimbabwe’s crisis deepened when Mugabe won a run-off presidential election last month which became a one-man poll after Tsvangirai pulled out following a wave of deadly attacks on his followers.

Tsvangirai believes his victory over Mugabe in the first round on March 29, when he fell just short of an overall majority, gives him the right to become president.

However, the 84-year-old Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader since his country’s independence from Britain in 1980, has maintained that he remains the rightful head of state.

Although the two-week timeframe has raised eyebrows, a report in South Africa’s Business Day newspaper said a swift deal was on the cards as the two sides had agreed on key issues, such as a new constitution, in talks earlier this year.

Mugabe said Monday there was a common agreement on the need to amend the constitution, giving rise to speculation that a new post of prime minister would be created for Tsvangirai.

Sehlare Makgetlaneng, a researcher at the Pretoria-based Africa Institute, said two weeks was a realistic timeframe given previous rounds of negotiations.

“Before the MoU was signed, the MDC and ZANU-PF already knew that at a point they will have to come to an agreement on power-sharing so two weeks is enough for them,” said Makgetlaneng.—AFP

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