Mbeki throws weight behind church relief effort for Zimbabweans

JOHANNESBURG - President Thabo Mbeki has pledged to throw his weight behind efforts by South Africa's church leaders to mobilise support for a relief effort for Zimbabweans displaced during the clean-up blitz.

Speaking after meeting Mbeki in Pretoria yesterday, the South African Council of Churches' (SACC) leaders said the president had agreed to support the relief effort.

"The president said he will support that (relief effort)," said SACC President Russel Botman.

Mbeki, who has consistently backed Mugabe in the past, pledged to act only after receiving a copy of the report which was compiled by United Nations (UN) special envoy Anna Tibaijuka who was sent to assess the evictions by UN boss Koffi Annan.

At least a million people were thrown onto the streets after their houses and backyard cottages were destroyed in a campaign the government says is necessary to clean up cities and towns and smash the illegal foreign currency parallel market blamed for Zimbabwe's economic ills.

But the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party which is mainly supported in urban areas has accused the government of waging the blitz to punish its supporters for rejecting Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party during last March's election.

The South African church leaders who were in Zimbabwe last week to assess the plight of thousands of evicted families, have described conditions at temporary holding camps around the country as "shocking, horrendous and heart-rending."

Yesterday, the state-controlled Herald newspaper accused the SA church leaders of spying on behalf of Zimbabwe's former colonial master Britain.

The British embassy in Harare expressed surprise at the claims saying the British government had neither funded nor organised the visit.

Botman yesterday demanded that the Harare authorities halt the highly unpopular operation.

"The operation must stop. There is no choice. We cannot see that process going through," he said.

The United States, Britain, church and human rights groups have all condemned the evictions which they said were a violation of the rights of the poor.

United Nations special envoy Anna Tibaijuka who spent two weeks assessing the evictions in Zimbabwe is expected to present her report to UN boss Koffi Annan next week.

Meanwhile, South Africa's opposition African Christian Democratic Party yesterday said Mbeki has "long exceeded his capacity to excuse not acting on a matter that will destabilise the entire southern region of Africa".

"We applaud the efforts of the SACC and other religious institutions and non-governmental organisations that have ... worked tirelessly to bring stability and mobilise Zimbabweans and other African states to turn this situation around." - ZimOnline