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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 March 2007, 12:13 GMT
Pressure for Zimbabwe change
President Mugabe said Western critics of his rule could "go hang" after they blamed him for the mistreatment of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Observers are now asking if this week's events could lead to real change in Zimbabwe.

As BBC News is banned from reporting inside Zimbabwe, Peter Biles has been following developments from Johannesburg:

Morgan Tsvangirai
Morgan Tsvangirai was prepared for a brutal response from the state

A week ago, we sat in the ballroom of a luxury hotel in Johannesburg. It was the annual dinner of the Foreign Correspondents' Association, and almost everyone from our Southern Africa press corps was there.

For the guest of honour was Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change.

Over the course of an hour or so, he gave us his assessment of the current situation in Zimbabwe.

There was a need, he said, to confront Robert Mugabe's dictatorship on the streets. Mr Tsvangirai made it clear he was prepared for a brutal response from the state, for the banning of meetings, and for arrests.

"We've been to jail in the past," he pointed out.

Less than 48 hours later, Morgan Tsvangirai and dozens of other activists were once again in police custody. And they were severely beaten in the process.

The man who limped into court in Harare on Monday, with a serious head injury and his face heavily swollen, looked nothing like the confident figure who had sparred with the press, here in Johannesburg, a couple of days earlier.

Shocking picture

Sekai Holland in hospital
Sixty-four-year-old Sekai Holland suffered a fractured arm, leg and ribs

As the battered MDC activists were treated in hospital, one of our local papers published a truly shocking picture on its front page, of Sekai Holland, a founding member of the Zimbabwean opposition.

She is a roving ambassador for the MDC and I have met her on numerous occasions at international gatherings.

This week's photograph - captioned "Mugabe's Dirty Work" - showed Sekai Holland lying in her hospital bed with her nightdress pulled up, to reveal massive bruising on her thighs.

Her arm was in plaster and her eyes closed. She looked unconscious.

It is thought she was beaten more severely because she was originally a member of the ruling party - Zanu PF - and defected to the MDC.

These are, of course, images that the Zimbabwean government would prefer the world not to see. The authorities have made it as difficult as possible for us to report on Zimbabwe in recent years.

Mugabe's 'axis of evil'

I last went to Harare in the winter of 2001, just a few weeks before BBC News was officially barred from entering the country.

We had gone to report on the death of the man known as Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi, the leader of the War Veterans' Association who had led the seizure of white-owned farms a year earlier.

He had died suddenly and was given a funeral at Heroes' Acre in Harare.

It was the day after Tony Blair's first re-election as prime minister, and President Mugabe used the occasion to rant about his axis of evil: Britain, Blair and the BBC.

It may take a lot more than opposition protests before Zimbabwe enters the post-Mugabe era
A while later, we found ourselves reporting from one of the most beautiful places in the country: the Mana Pools National Park, on the banks of the Zambezi.

Here, at least, one could quietly forget about Zimbabwe's woes and enjoy a rare event: a total eclipse of the sun.

But the recent death of "Hitler" Hunzvi was still on my mind and I asked the white safari operator what the reaction of local white farmers had been when they had first heard the news.

His response was entirely predictable: "Jeez, man, we finished the beers before lunch that day."

These days, there is not much to laugh about in Zimbabwe.

The nation is on its knees. Inflation is running at 1,700%. There is said to be 80% unemployment, and most people are unable to buy even the most basic goods.

The state health service has collapsed. Doctors and nurses have been on strike and people are leaving the country in huge numbers.

Many Zimbabweans end up here in South Africa.

There are thought to be about three million of them. And that is not good news for the government in Pretoria.

No country can satisfactorily absorb an influx on this scale.

Border crossing

A few months back, I watched the daily routine on the South Africa-Zimbabwe border at Beit Bridge.

Desperate Zimbabweans swim the crocodile-infested Limpopo River and then worm their way under the border fence, before crossing nearby game farms.

Map of Zimbabwe and South Africa

If they get caught by the police, they are sent back to Zimbabwe immediately. If not, they gravitate towards the big cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg.

After the violent attacks on the opposition in Zimbabwe, the South African government has at last spoken out about the crisis, calling on the Zimbabwean authorities to respect the rule of law.

The statement from Zimbabwe's most powerful neighbour was long overdue.

But South Africa is treading carefully. It does not want to trigger an even bigger exodus of Zimbabweans.

And whether Robert Mugabe is listening is another matter.

He is set on remaining in power, while those closest to him in the ruling party bicker about how to manage the succession.

The problem is that no-one can reliably predict whether this is the beginning of the end-game for President Mugabe, after 27 years in power.

The security forces remain loyal to him, and it may take a lot more than opposition protests before Zimbabwe enters the post-Mugabe era.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 March, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Profile: Morgan Tsvangirai
15 Oct 04 |  Africa
African press condemns Zimbabwe
15 Mar 07 |  Africa

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