16 January 2008

Zimbabwe: Mbeki Says End of Crisis in Sight

Johannesburg — PRESIDENT Thabo Mbeki has expressed confidence that a resolution to the Zimbabwe crisis will come to light within the next few days, says visiting Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

Briefing the media after an hour-long meeting with Mbeki, where the crisis was high on the agenda, Ahern said the president had given him a detailed account on the progress of the talks between Zimbabwe's government and factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

"The president explained to us that he is within days ... of the final aspects of this. He is, I think, obviously working extremely hard on it, and is hopeful. He gave me what he believes are the sticking points, and his determination to try to work those through," said Ahern, whose two-day working visit to SA ended yesterday.

Since last March, when the Southern African Development Community (SADC) mandated Mbeki to lead efforts to break Zimbabwe's political impasse, his mediation has yielded minor concessions, with a new draft constitution still outstanding .

Ahern said Mbeki had updated him on aspects of the discussions aimed at ensuring Zimbabwe's general elections -- scheduled for March -- were free and fair.

The MDC was pushing for a postponement to June, to allow it adequate time to implement the changes.

"He brought us to each of the categories and the present position on the negotiations ," said Ahern.

Also addressing the media briefing was Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who said discussions with the Irish delegation had focused on peace-keeping, especially SA's contribution in efforts to broker an agreement over the issue of Northern Ireland.

The talks were also concerned with skills training and boosting trade. "We want to take this relationship to the next level," said Mlambo-Ngcuka, who led a mission to Ireland last year. Trade between the two countries is worth just more than R500m .

Although Ireland's economic growth is slowing to its lowest level in 10 years, it is one of Europe's fastest-growing economies, after breaking its overreliance on its closest neighbour, Britain .

Previously one of the poorest countries in western Europe, Ireland saw its economy take off with the transformation of the European Union (EU) into a single market, in 1993. Access to the vast internal EU market attracted external investment, bolstering growth and earning Ireland the moniker the "Celtic Tiger".

In 2005, The Economist magazine named Ireland the best place in the world to live, saying rising incomes and traditional values made conditions most likely to make its people happy.

That same year, Zimbabwe was rated the worst place in the world to live because of rampant shortages of basic commodities and a hostile political climate.

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