Nowhere to hide.

Political leaders can get away, literally, with all sorts of misdemeanors if the conditions are right and they have enough of a protective screen. We saw that with Kennedy and Roosevelt - both of whom were carefully shielded by the media when they were in power. We saw that on a much larger scale when Stalin was in power in the Soviet Union. The same might be said of the Chinese leadership for many years after World War 2.

In his first 15 years of leadership in Zimbabwe, Mr. Mugabe got away with genocidal activities on a scale not seen in the years of the civil war in Zimbabwe. He is also associated with the deaths under mysterious circumstances of many of his own comrades including Chitepo, Tongogara and Nyagumbo. Had he retired in 1995, all of that might have been forgotten and he may have been allowed to sail off into the sunset of his days, it was not to be.

Since 1996 the world community has placed his regime under scrutiny and he has been judged and found guilty of many of the excesses he may have committed earlier but was able to escape direct association and condemnation. Duped by his own sense of invincibility he has now thrown caution to the wind and is lashing out at all who are perceived to be his enemies - and we are many. This may be understandable, but it is a mistake.

We were all plunged into the slough of despond last week when he arrived back from Dar es Salaam, strutted onto the stage at the Zanu PF headquarters and seemed to be able to brush the SADC off his shoulders and at the same time sweep aside his domestic Zanu PF adversaries. But we now know that he presented a very distorted view of the SADC summit and its outcome.

We understand from many sources that the SADC summit was unusual for many reasons - it was summoned in a matter of days, the Heads of State for 11 of the 14 countries attended and the others were represented at a senior level. All Heads of State participated and were united in their criticism of the manner in which the opposition in Zimbabwe was being treated and on the issue of the seriousness of the Zimbabwe crisis. They uniformly demanded that the roots of the crisis be tackled without any further delay.

The picture of Mugabe that emerges from these reports is not the one we see - a swaggering arrogant tyrant, threatening dire consequences to all who dare threatened his hegemony over political power. We understand he actually accepted that Morgan Tsvangirai had been wrongly treated whilst in custody and that 'those responsible' should be brought to book! He also accepted the need to bring the crisis in Zimbabwe under some sort of control and get the country back on its feet. He accepted without a quibble the appointment of Mr. Mbeki as the SADC 'point man' or facilitator in mediation between the MDC (never in my lifetime) and Zanu PF.

In recent days more details have emerged - both Mr. Mbeki and the South African Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs have stated that they are preparing to take up the cudgels on behalf of the SADC leadership and initiate the long awaited talks between the MDC and Zanu PF. They have clearly stated that they are meeting the MDC and have asked them to put their demands for changes that might lead to a free and fair election in March 2008 in writing. They have indicated that once these are in place they will be taking up these issues with Zanu PF.

They have stated very clearly that no party will be allowed to walk away from the talks and that they expect compromise. They also state that the objective is to ensure that the March 2008 elections are free and fair and democratic - to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. Well, that is all we have been asking for - get the talks going and make sure no one walks out and we will produce an agreement that could yield such an outcome. The only stumbling block being the fact that a free and fair election would signal the death knell of Zanu PF.

I have many friends who say to me that is not so, that Zanu has a constituency and that they can never be taken for granted. I agree they should never be discounted as a political entity, but if the people of Zimbabwe were given a genuine, free and fair election and Zanu PF was denied the capacity or opportunity to do its normal 'thing', it remains my view that they would be defeated massively.

So Mr. Mbeki, it is over to you. We wait to see if you can handle a bout in the ring with Robert Gabriel Mugabe. I have no doubt that Mbeki has the power and the capacity but in this game it is willpower that so often makes the differences. Mugabe has his back to the wall and after this week he knows what he is up against. That makes him a very dangerous adversary.

While this has been unfolding, the thugs in the present regime have been having a field day. 30 to 50 MDC leaders a day have been abducted from their homes and places of work, beaten and then dumped. Several have died from the beatings and many others are receiving medical treatment. It is clear that this has been a carefully planned and executed programme. There have been many petrol bombings and these are being uniformly blamed on the MDC even though we are clearly not involved in any way. The objective is to tear apart the structures of the MDC and terrify everyone who is in any way associated with the MDC.

Last week the strike went off reasonably well - I drove through the City of Bulawayo on the Tuesday morning and most industrial firms were closed and about half the retail stores. The Banks were all open. The City was very quiet. It was less effective in Harare and in the smaller centers.

We do not get the sense of how serious the economic collapse here is until you visit South Africa. I was in SA for a few days this week and came back on the eve of Easter. The roads out of Johannesburg were packed - nose to tail all the way. Then when I got to the border there were thousands of Zimbabweans trying to get home for the long weekend. It took me 3 and half hours to clear the border. On the Zimbabwe side there was little traffic - the traffic going south was virtually nil.

If we are going to have to negotiate with Zanu PF and then oversee an agreement that will usher in the necessary conditions for free and fair elections in 11 months time, we are going to have our hands full. But at least we will be doing something positive.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 8th April 2007