Johannesburg — Seven months ago leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) greeted President Robert Mugabe with a standing ovation at a regional summit in the Zambian capital of Lusaka, but while the venue for the 12 April crisis summit on Zimbabwe maybe the same, analysts say there has been a sea change in attitudes by southern African presidents towards Zimbabwe's 84-year-old leader.
Mugabe, who was scheduled to attend the summit, has reportedly announced on the eve of the meeting that he would not, without giving his reasons. Either way the support Mugabe once enjoyed from SADC, has withered within a few months, according to analysts.
In August 2007 Zimbabwe's 7,600 percent inflation rate was the world's highest and since SADC last gathered in Lusaka it has galloped to more than 100,000 percent.
Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party has lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since the country won its independence from Britain in 1980 and the apparent refusal to publish the presidential results of the 29 March poll, which Movement for Democratic Change opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai claims to have won, has led to increasing international condemnation, not least from among SADC's main western donor nations.
Martin Rupiya, a senior researcher at the Pretoria based think-tank the Institute for Security Studies, told IRIN the hurriedly arranged summit was a consequence of both "donor pressure and a recognition (by SADC) that there is a real crisis (in Zimbabwe) and they (SADC) must do something about it."
"It will be telling it like it is for the very first time," he said.
In the past SADC had maintained a united front in the face of criticism against Mugabe, although Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, before he became SADC chairman, broke ranks briefly when he compared Zimbabwe to a "sinking Titanic" in 2007, but he was swiftly brought back into line and recanted his comments.
"Mugabe does not come to this meeting (SADC summit) as a president of the country, but as a loser of a vote. This is no longer a popular leader. He is severely wounded," Rupiya said.
Tsvangirai, who has been the butt of Mugabe insults since the MDC was formed in 1999, will also attend the summit and while Mugabe has rarely been seen in public since the poll, the MDC leader has been on a high profile tour of the region and held meetings with its political heavyweights.
"Even (heads of states) receiving Morgan Tsvangirai, where before African leaders have side stepped him, is a major breakthrough in diplomacy," Rupiya said.
In seven months there has been significant developments in sub-Saharan Africa, which are having a direct impact on Mugabe and his attempts to extend his 28-year rule.
Kenya's disputed 2007 polls that has so far claimed hundreds of lives in post-election violence, is one scenario routinely discussed as a possible outcome of Zimbabwe poll dispute, but it is the power struggle within one of SADC's main power brokers, South Africa, and Seretse Ian Khama's recent assumption to Botswana's presidency that are likely to have a direct bearing on the futures of Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
Tsvangirai's meeting on 10 April with South African President Thabo Mbeki, appointed mediator in 2007 by SADC in talks between ZANU-PF and MDC to agree the conditions for free and fair polls in Zimbabwe, was arranged after he met with the Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa's ruling ANC party.
Zuma, who fought a bitter and acrimonious battle with Mbeki for the ANC presidency - which culminated in a Zuma victory at the ruling party's congress in December 2007 - publicly raised concerns about Zimbabwe's elections and said the delay in the release of the presidential ballot was "suspicious".
The Congress of South African Trade Unions, was one of Zuma's kingmakers in his struggle for the ANC presidency and has been a fierce critic of Mugabe and strong supporter of Zimbabwe's trade union based MDC opposition.
Neo Simutanyi, executive director of the Centre for Policy Studies, a Lusaka based think tank, told IRIN, "Mbeki is aware of Zuma's statements and he will need to score political points (at the summit)."
Since Tsvangirai's meeting with Zuma, South Africa's deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad has expressed concerns about the renewed evictions of white farmers in the wake of ZANU-PF's poll defeat, which is "a departure from the norm, a new paradigm," Rupiya said.
The role of Botswana
While international and regional gaze has been fixed on Zimbabwe, neighbouring Botswana witnessed a smooth presidential transition that saw Seretse Ian Khama, a former army commander and the son of the country's founding president Seretse Khama, installed as successor to president Festus Moegae on 1 April.
More than three million Zimbabweans are said to have left the country since 2000, where four out five people are jobless. Neighbouring Botswana, after South Africa, is a country of choice for many.
The influx of poor migrants in search of employment to Botswana, one of the region's richest countries, now has one of its prisons exclusively reserved for Zimbabwean "miscreants" Rupiya said.
Rupiya told IRIN that a well-informed source told him it was Khama that was the impetus for the crisis summit and that Botswana's new president had contacted Mwanawasa and told him "we have a problem here" in reference to Zimbabwe's poll.
Botswana's spokesperson for the president, Jeff Ramsay, told IRIN that Botswana was "involved" in the calling of the summit, "not leading it" and "do not want to claim otherwise." He said "Mwanawasa, as chairman of SADC makes the decision [to call an emergency summit]."
Tsvangirai has met with Khama since Zimbabwe's poll in the capital Gaberone, although Botswana, viewed as a model African democracy by European Union donor nations, has a track record of dissent towards Mugabe's presidential style.
Botswana's president Ian Khama has no relationship with Mugabe and he will be able to put critical issues on the table. He will be able to say things that others (SADC leaders) are afraid to say
Simutanyi said Khama's presidential term may only be a few days old, but it means that he has "no relationship with Mugabe and he will be able to put critical issues on the table. He will be able to say things that others (SADC leaders) are afraid to say."
Mugabe's staunchest regional ally, Angola - Africa's second largest oil producer and another SADC power broker, "will probably not be able to hold sway (at the summit)" and is itself facing elections this year that will probably prove a greater challenge than Zimbabwe's, Rupiya said.
Namibia's former president, Sam Nujoma, was also a loyal Mugabe supporter, but his successor, President Hifikepunye Pohamba, does not share the same position, while Tanzania "will not break ranks, but it won't keep quiet either," Rupiya said.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]