Zimbabwe foreign minister expected in Pretoria in bid to avert meltdown

JOHANNESBURG - Zimbabwe Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi is expected in Pretoria today to press for a massive $1 billion bailout from the South African government to avert a looming economic and humanitarian disaster in the crisis-sapped country.

Mumbengegwi is expected to meet South Africa's Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and Reserve Bank of South Africa governor Tito Mboweni to discuss the financial rescue package.

The Pretoria talks come amid weekend Press reports that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were set to expel Zimbabwe on Wednesday this week over failure to repay debts, a development that could hasten the southern African nation's total collapse.

The Bretton Woods institutions withdrew aid to Zimbabwe several years ago and expelling the southern African country would be the last signal to other multilateral financial institutions and the donor community to cut whatever little aid is still trickling to Harare.

Embattled President Robert Mugabe last week begged South Africa to give Zimbabwe at least US$1 billion to buy badly needed fuel, food and maize seed or the country would grind to its knees.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, under pressure from the international community over Mugabe's demolition of homes in a controversial urban clean-up campaign, is said to have demanded a halt to the urban renewal drive as a pre-condition for financial aid.

Mbeki's deputy Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is said to have also emphasised the need to stop the mass eviction of poor urban families when she met Mugabe and his second Vice-President Joyce Mujuru in Harare last week.

The Harare authorities immediately announced at the weekend a temporary halt to the controversial clean up exercise which has drawn criticism from the United Nations, Western governments, Zimbabwean and international human rights groups.

Zimbabwe is grappling its worst economic crisis since it was founded by Mugabe from the ashes of the British colony of Rhodesia 25 years ago. Inflation is pegged at 164.3 percent, one of the highest such rates in the world. Unemployment is estimated at 70 percent while non-governmental organisations say about 80 percent of Zimbabweans live below the poverty datum line.

A burgeoning HIV/AIDS pandemic is killing at least 2 000 Zimbabweans every week while four million people out of the country's population of 12 million people face starvation unless donor groups provide 1.2 million tonnes of food aid.

Critics accuse Mugabe of running down what was one of Africa's most vibrant economies and blame his chaotic and violent seizure of productive land from whites for causing perennial food shortages in a country that only five years ago was one of the region's bread baskets.

Mugabe denies ruining Zimbabwe and instead accuses Western governments of sabotaging the country's economy in a bid to punish his government for taking land from whites and giving it to landless blacks. - ZimOnline.