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Defiant Zimbabwe bars South Africa union team
By Cris Chinaka
February 02, 2005

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HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe on Wednesday barred trade union leaders from key ally South Africa who tried to enter the country on a pre-election fact-finding mission, saying they were visitors with a hostile agenda.

The delegation from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) -- allied to South African President Thabo Mbeki's ruling ANC -- returned home vowing to step up pressure for political change in Zimbabwe.

President Robert Mugabe's government has been accused of rigging past elections and opposition leaders said limited reforms ahead of March 31 polls favour the ruling ZANU-PF.

"The Zimbabwean government's action confirms reports that it is contemptuous of human rights and civil liberties," COSATU said in a statement issued in Johannesburg. "We will not abandon our colleagues in Zimbabwe in their hour of need."

Mugabe's government had first threatened to jail the COSATU delegation but officials said it had opted to deport them from the airport to avoid embarrassing Mbeki, who has resisted calls for a tough line over allegations of political repression by Mugabe.

The move nevertheless highlighted tensions between Harare and South Africa ahead of Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections on March 31, which regional leaders have described as an important test of Harare's commitment to democratic reforms.

Both Mugabe and Mbeki were in Mozambique on Wednesday for the inauguration of President Armando Guebuza, who succeeded that country's longtime president following peaceful elections in December.

In Harare, Zimbabwean labour leaders waved at their South African counterparts who responded with waves and victory signs from behind the immigration barrier.

"Where do you think you are? This is not Africa, this is not Zimbabwe, this is North Korea!" Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) Secretary General Wellington Chibebe shouted jokingly at the South African visitors.

ZCTU President Lovemore Matombo said COSATU's expulsion showed hopes for democratic change in Zimbabwe were remote.

"The situation in this country is now self-explanatory. No one needs an explanation of what repression we are facing and what repression we are fighting."


Zimbabwe's Labour Minister Paul Mangwana told Reuters the group was denied entry because it had not followed procedure for gaining approval for such a visit.

"We do not understand why they did not want to follow protocol, unless they had a hostile agenda," Mangwana said.

Mugabe's government expelled a similar COSATU fact-finding mission last October, saying it was acting in concert with Western countries led by former colonial ruler Britain.

COSATU is an official alliance partner of Mbeki's ruling African National Congress (ANC) but has taken a much tougher line on Zimbabwe than the South African government.

COSATU said on Wednesday it would meet with ZCTU officials in South Africa on Thursday to discuss the way forward.

"We are back not as a defeated force," COSATU Secretary General Zwelenzima Vavi told reporters upon returning to Johannesburg airport. "This serves as an education to millions of South Africans who are not exposed to the truth of what is happening in Zimbabwe."

The South African Communist Party, the third element of the ANC's official ruling alliance, also condemned Harare's move and called on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to ensure regionally agreed electoral guidelines are strictly adhered to in the March polls.

Zimbabwe's main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has accused Mugabe of stealing earlier elections and has yet to decide whether to contest next month's polls, saying it was unclear whether the vote would be either free or fair.

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