PRETORIA - With its weeks-long electoral standoff, Zimbabwe may be receding from global consciousness but not from that of South and southern Africa.
Both the elite and the ordinary people dread what might unfold next in the diabolical mind of Robert Mugabe and thus in Mugabe-land. Yet no one quite knows how to prevent a potential bloodbath, given that Zimbabwe may already have had a quiet military coup and is "a de facto military state," in the words of the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for Zimbabwe.
Not surprisingly, the clearest response is emanating farthest from the scene.
Western leaders and North American/European pundits speaking in the name of Zimbabweans will neither face the machine guns and machetes of Mugabe's forces, nor will they have to cope with the regional consequences of his crackdown, such as a tidal wave of fleeing refugees.
Zimbabweans - living in fear, besides reeling under hyperinflation of 170,000 per cent (as of Friday), and severe shortages of food - are in no position to duplicate Ukraine's orange revolution or Georgia's velvet or Lebanon's cedar revolutions.
More likely is a repeat of Kenya. There, a disputed election in December led to clashes that killed 1,000 people, a crisis only now resolved with a national unity cabinet of 94, nearly half the parliament.
Zimbabwe may see worse.
Since Mugabe's Zanu-PF lost its parliamentary majority and he the presidential vote, he and his equally corrupt cronies in the army, police and intelligence services have taken a series of ominous measures.
It was the Joint Operations Command that "imposed a blackout on election results, instructed the judiciary not to hear an opposition court action, ordered the arrests of electoral officials and put all senior commission officials under surveillance," the Zimbabwean ("a voice of the voiceless") reported.
The Electoral Commission was moved to an undisclosed location, for a recount in 23 ridings and to prepare for a presidential runoff.
Foreign reporters have been harassed out; political rallies banned; armed troops and riot police placed at strategic positions; the so-called "veterans" of the former Southern Rhodesia's war of independence and armed youth gangs unleashed to beat up members and supporters of the opposition, as well as hound the white farmers off their land (their numbers having dwindled to 300 from 4,200 a decade ago).
Mugabe said politicians of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change who defend the remaining 25,000 whites (in a population of 12 million) are "black puppets."
White bashing, stealing elections and battering opponents are old Mugabe tactics. Yet this round portends unprecedented danger.
He used to have other tools - distributing food and hiking subsidies and civil servants' pay. Now the treasury is empty and there's no corn, cooking oil, sugar, even salt. There's not much at his command except intimidation and terror.
GIVEN THIS very real prospect of bloodshed, South African President Thabo Mbeki shocked everyone last weekend when he landed at Harare airport and, clasping Mugabe's hand with both his, said there was "no crisis."
His own African National Congress broke ranks. The ANC is no ordinary ruling party. Nelson Mandela's vehicle of liberation, it has strong views on both domestic and foreign policy.
Jacob Zuma, the party's head and also president-presumptive at the end of Mbeki's term next year, thundered: "The region cannot afford a deepening crisis."
There were calls that Mbeki be fired as the Zimbabwe "facilitator" for the Southern African Development Community, an organ of the African Union.
Unmoved, Mbeki flew to New York to sit sphinx-like at the Security Council, taking South Africa's turn at presiding. He did not mention Zimbabwe. Everyone else did.
He was forced to concede that the situation is indeed "dire." But he wouldn't go any further. His stance is explained by personal, post-colonial and post-apartheid reasons.
Mandela was a liberator and a statesman, Mbeki a politician who must manage a post-apartheid nation. Mandela's consciousness was global, Mbeki's very African. When Governor General MichaÃƒÂ«lle Jean visited here in December 2006, what interested him the most was that she was Haitian-born. He praised Canada for appointing her and said Europe should learn a lesson in how to treat its African migrants.
Mbeki wants an African renaissance. To fight off the ill effects of colonialism and Western exploitation of African resources, Africans must resolve African problems the African way.
He has resisted Western, particularly American, entreaties on Iran, Sudan, Burma and Belarus. He keeps good relations with Cuba. He is very pro-Palestinian, while maintaining good relations with Israel. He opposed both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Given all that, he resists telling a fellow African leader what to do. He particularly resists Western pressure to do so.
Then there's the China factor.
When he promised Zimbabwe a $2 billion loan in 2005 in return for political reforms, China matched the offer with no strings.
There's also the problem that many African leaders still see Mugabe as a black liberator who stands up to the white man. Others are afraid that he'd accuse them of being lackeys of the West, the worst label to have in these parts.
Still, there's a popular expectation that South Africa, as the continent's largest economy and the leading member of the African Union, will lean on Mugabe to put things right.
Even some leaders have joined the chorus. Those from Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana and Tanzania realize that a destabilized Zimbabwe would be disastrous for regional stability, investment, development assistance, refugee movements, etc. But what to do?
Mbeki feels that as a mediator, he should stay neutral. That's how he got concessions from Mugabe to have the March 29 election results posted at every polling station, thereby avoiding a massive fraud.
"The first order of business should be to protect Zimbabweans from violence by Mugabe's forces," says the Nairobi-based African Conservative Forum.
"The U.S. and the European Union should make it absolutely clear that any commander of the Zimbabwean security forces who gives orders for the shooting of protesters will be indicted before the international criminal court. Also, every individual police officer who obeys an order to shoot should be held personally liable for his criminal act."
IT IS SAID that Mugabe and his commanders are hanging on to power as a way to escape possible charges of crimes against humanity.
The more they are made to dread that prospect, the more likely they will realize that committing more violations of human rights will only tighten the noose.
Haroon Siddiqui is editorial page editor emeritus of the Toronto Star.
© 2008 Toronto Star