Suddenly Zimbabwe seems different. Is it just those shocking pictures of the battered face of Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's burly opposition leader? If President Robert Mugabe deliberately allowed them to be taken to show what happens to people who oppose him, the strategy drastically backfired, emboldening opponents at home and abroad. Change is in the air but of what kind?
Tsvangirai was beaten after being detained at a protest rally in the capital, Harare, on March 11. Condemnation came not just from the usual quarters such as Britain and the U.S. South Africa, which has long advocated a softly-softly approach to Mugabe, finally issued something akin to a reprimand, calling on all parties to respect the rule of law. (In private, the language is understood to have been more forceful.) The current chairman of the African Union, the Ghanaian President John Kufuor, called Zimbabwe "embarrassing." These rebukes are mild, but compared to past silence or support for Mugabe, they represent a substantial shift.
Such developments are helping to delegitimize Mugabe's regime within Africa, but his response suggests that he has yet to notice the new mood: his critics, he said, could "go hang." Now 83, Mugabe has become increasingly repressive since he won the election at independence in 1980. Although technically a multiparty democracy, Zimbabwe is in effect a one-party state. The opposition political parties, trade unions, churches and civil society organizations, all of them harassed by arrests and detentions has been fractured since its failure in flawed elections in 2005. Last September an antigovernment demonstration was called off because organizers feared not enough people would turn out. People were too busy surviving the country's virulent inflation and too intimidated by the police to take to the streets.
Yet as each day ticks by, the situation worsens. Inflation, now at 1,730%, is predicted to rise to over 4,000% by the end of the year. More than 80% of the population live below the poverty line, and mortality rates are soaring. Mugabe, as always, seeks to deflect responsibility by blaming others for the economic meltdown: Britain and the U.S. Meanwhile allies such as South Africa and Equatorial Guinea have kept Zimbabwe afloat by providing electricity and fuel on credit, while sales of mineral rights to Chinese companies have also generated income and hopes of further support. But the Chinese are not prepared to give Mugabe a free ride. They have yet to deliver the kind of aid he has requested.
Within Zimbabwe itself the tectonic plates have been shifting. Toward the end of last year the divided opposition called a truce to work together under the banner of the Save Zimbabwe Campaign. More significantly, Mugabe's own ruling zanu-PF party has begun to split as potential successors become impatient for power. After years of playing off one faction against another, there is now no credible successor whom Mugabe can trust to allow him to retire in peace. He rules now through the Joint Operation Command made up of senior army, police and intelligence officers.
This isn't how Mugabe had planned it. A resolution proposed at his party's conference last December would have harmonized the timing of parliamentary and presidential elections, allowing him to rule until 2010. Instead, his potential successors united, and the resolution was dropped from the agenda. Recently zanu-PF dissidents have been meeting the opposition parties, and have blocked their leader's attempts to call a state of emergency that would allow him to cancel all elections. That means there will be a presidential poll next year. Will Mugabe be the zanu-PF candidate? The very fact that this is a question demonstrates how rapidly his power is ebbing away.
Even so, the international community looks on at the turmoil and can do little. Sanctions such as travel bans on senior members of the party and government imposed by the European Union and the U.S. have had little effect. Mugabe has demonstrated time and again that he is prepared to destroy the country rather than give up power. South Africa, the big brother of the region, is the key to change. But President Thabo Mbeki has been afraid to touch Mugabe, who is still seen as a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle in southern Africa. Among the poor and landless in South Africa, Mugabe's seizure of white farms went down well. Afraid of lighting a fire in his own country, Mbeki sits on his hands and will take a proactive role only if Zimbabwe collapses into civil war.
Given a passive South Africa, the most the rest of the world can do is to prepare for Mugabe's departure, making it clear that there is a well-funded reconstruction plan on the table once he goes. They would do well to trumpet that plan loudly and soon. It may even help to hasten the end of his regime.