By Karima Brown, Moshoeshoe Monare, Hans Pienaar and Reuters
South Africa praised electoral reforms in Zimbabwe as "positive developments" on Thursday and said it was doing all it could to ensure that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) guidelines on elections were adhered to.
However, an SADC team tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe complies with a regional protocol to ensure free and fair elections, has yet to receive permission to visit that country.
Expressing his concern over the delay, foreign affairs director-general Ayanda Ntsaluba said he hoped the team would be allowed to proceed soon.
"Zimbabwe has not given clearance for the team and we are a bit concerned. However, they have in the past given us the assurance and there is no reason to believe that they will not be consistent now," Ntsaluba said.
Zimbabwe's main opposition lifted its threat to boycott the March parliamentary polls on Thursday, saying it would take part even though conditions were skewed in favour of Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party.
"It is with a heavy heart that the MDC has decided to participate in the elections," MDC spokesperson Paul Themba Nyathi told a news conference.
"We participate to keep the flames of hope for change alive," he said.
Formed in 1999, the MDC says it would have won parliamentary elections held in 2000 and a presidential vote two years later had it not been for electoral fraud and a campaign of violence against its supporters by Zanu-PF.
The MDC says electoral changes made so far, including the appointment of an independent electoral commission, still fall short of standards set by the SADC.
Earlier on Thursday, SA government spokesperson Joel Netshitenzhe said there were "some positive developments" which gave Pretoria hope that Harare would come "as close as possible" to protocols agreed by the SADC.
These included the setting up of an independent electoral commission and access, albeit limited, by the MDC to the state media.
The protocols, to which Mugabe is a signatory, were drawn up in Mauritius in August last year and seek to ensure free and fair elections in all member states.
In terms of the protocols, the SADC technical team was supposed to visit Zimbabwe at least 90 days before the election, a deadline it has already missed given that the poll will be held on March 31.
So far no team from the SADC has visited Zimbabwe and neither has the troika of leaders from South Africa, Lesotho and Namibia.
The three-page protocol states that an independent electoral commission must be set up to preside over the election process.
It also states that there be free access to the media by all political parties, including the opposition, and that a climate conducive to free and fair elections be created in the run-up to the poll.
A voters' roll, to which the MDC should have access, is also supposed to have been drawn up. However, Mugabe has only complied with the protocol calling for regular elections.
The opposition MDC cites the setting up of the electoral commission under chairperson George Chiweshe as proof that the commission is partisan to the ruling Zanu-PF.
Chiweshe hails from the armed forces where he served as an advocate-general.
His detractors say he has no civil legal experience, while it is widely believed that the other four commissioners were hand-picked by Mugabe.
The commission has also to date failed to provide a public voters' roll outside of Harare, and has apparently refused to make an electronic voters' roll available. There is, therefore, no independent way of checking duplication on the roll.
The MDC had raised these issues with Mbeki, Netshitenzhe told reporters.
Commenting on the Congress of South African Trade Union's (Cosatu's) second thwarted attempt to visit Zimbabwe, Netshitenzhe said the South African government would not be side-tracked by a "sideshow" from its efforts to ensure free and fair elections.
"If we allowed ourselves to be diverted by sideshows we might lose sight of the ball. It is critical that we work within the structures of the SADC."
After a hastily arranged meeting on Thursday morning with the Cosatu mission in Musina, leaders of the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) delayed their trip home after apparently being tipped off that they would face arrest on their return.
They declined to disclose their departure or to say which route they would use in travelling home.
The impromptu meeting was arranged after Cosatu leaders, including secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi and Gwede Mantashe of the National Union of Mine Workers, were turned back from Harare on Wednesday.
The ZCTU leadership then drove hundreds of kilometres from Harare to Musina so the two sides could discuss conditions and the status of human rights in Zimbabwe.