JOHANNESBURG – President Barack Obama is calling for Zimbabwe's government to stop harassing its citizens and to implement reforms ahead of landmark elections expected later this year.
"Harassment of citizens and groups needs to stop and reform needs to move forward so people can cast their votes in elections that are fair and free and credible," he said during a visit to neighbouring South Africa.
Veteran president Robert Mugabe has set elections for July 31, drawing fierce criticism from his political foes.
Critics accuse Mugabe of attempting to push through a vote before reforms that would clean up the electoral roll, free the media and limit the military's political role.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai — who will face Mugabe in the polls –has threatened to boycott any unilaterally declared election date.
Tsvangirai won the most ballots in the first round of the 2008 elections, but pulled out of the second round amid violence against his supporters.
Obama encouraged leaders in Africa and around the world to follow former South African President Nelson Mandela's example of country before self.
"We as leaders occupy these spaces temporarily and we don't get so deluded that we think the fate of our country doesn't depend on how long we stay in office," Obama said.
Obama spoke at a news conference with South African President Jacob Zuma in the midst of a weeklong tour of the continent that also included stops in Senegal and Tanzania. But many other African nations are embroiled in religious, sectarian and other conflicts.
Obama decided to avoid stopping in his father's home nation of Kenya because of international disputes there.
The International Criminal Court is prosecuting Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta for crimes against humanity, including murder, deportation, rape, persecution and inhumane acts allegedly committed by his supporters in the violent aftermath of Kenya's 2007 elections.
"The timing was not right for me as the president of the United States to be visiting Kenya when those issues are still being worked on, and hopefully at some point resolved," Obama said.
He noted he's visited Kenya several times previously and expects he will as well in the future.
Obama and Zuma appeared at the Union Buildings that house government offices and the site of Mandela's 1994 inauguration as the country's first black president after 27 years behind bars for his activism.
The 94-year-old Mandela has been in a nearby hospital for three weeks after being admitted with a lung infection.
Zuma told reporters that Mandela is in critical but stable condition and the whole nation is praying that he will improve.
Obama and his wife visited with some of Mandela's relatives Saturday at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, part of the former president's foundation.
The White House did not say which relatives were meeting with Obama. In accordance with the family's wishes, Obama doesn't plan to visit with Mandela. – Agencies