As Zimbabwe slides into chaos and repression, there are indications President Robert Mugabe could be eased out of power by his own old guard.
Robert Mugabe's grip on power appears to be fading
Leading members of the ruling Zanu-PF party and the opposition are reportedly mapping out an end to the Mugabe era.
Sources in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) say the former security and army chiefs have held talks with the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Mr Tsvangirai was badly beaten in police custody earlier this month.
The MDC leader is said to have met the former security and army chiefs, Emmerson Mnangagwa and Solomon Mujuru.
The next week could not just be critical for the future of Zimbabwe, but for southern Africa as a whole
Their talks took place before Friday's meeting in Johannesburg between the vice-president of Zimbabwe Joyce Mujuru, who is Solomon Mujuru's wife, and her South African counterpart, Phumuzile Mlambo-Nguka.
The first indications that President Mugabe's iron grip on his party was slipping came at the Zanu-PF congress in December last year.
He asked the party to endorse his proposal to extend his presidency until 2010. The party, for the first time, turned him down.
Three major camps have emerged within Zanu-PF:
- Emmerson Mnangagwa's faction - he is a key Mugabe ally and one of his closest confidantes. He was minister of state security from 1982 to 1988 and has important links to the security services
- Solomon Mujuru's faction - also known as Rex Nhongo, he is the former army chief, and leading member of Robert Mugabe's guerrilla forces during the independence war
- Mugabe loyalists' faction
Both Mr Mnangagwa and Mrs Mujuru have presidential ambitions.
Until very recently they were at daggers drawn, but the economic collapse has driven them to talk.
Opposition sources report that they have met twice in the past 10 days, as well as holding meetings with Morgan Tsvangirai.
Together a plan has emerged. Essentially they are looking at the following:
- An interim period, leading up to free and fair presidential elections in March 2008. Guarantees that there will be a level playing field for all parties. The opposition would, in return, call for economic support from the international community to stave off economic collapse
- A dignified exit for Mr Mugabe, who would not be prosecuted and would be allowed to go into retirement, probably in South Africa after March 2008
This plan has been discussed with South Africa, which is immensely worried about the current state of affairs.
World Cup fears
There are already between two and three million Zimbabweans living in South Africa and another two million are thought to be considering fleeing from the economic chaos and hunger.
With the price of bread doubling in just one day, this exodus is becoming a real possibility.
Mr Mugabe has long been ruthless in dealing with opponents
The South African deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, has warned that it is difficult to see how a total meltdown in Zimbabwe could be avoided, with annual inflation at 1,700% and rising.
South Africa is also worried about the possible implications of further chaos and crisis on its borders with the 2010 World Cup looming large.
President Thabo Mbeki made this point in no uncertain terms when he met President Mugabe in Accra earlier this month during the celebrations of 50 years of Ghana's independence.
The plan is due to be put to a meeting of the Zanu-PF central committee due to be held next week.
It could be the final showdown between the president and his opponents. But he is an immensely powerful orator, and has dealt ruthlessly with internal challenges in the past.
Josiah Tongogara, commander of the guerrilla army Zanla, was with Robert Mugabe at the Lancaster House conference that led to Zimbabwe's independence and the end of white minority rule.
Many expected him to play a leading role in his country's future. But six days after the Lancaster House agreement was signed, Mr Mugabe announced "an extremely sad message" to "all the fighting people of Zimbabwe".
Mr Tongogara was dead, killed in a car accident in Mozambique. Few in his party accepted this version of events.
President Mugabe also cracked down hard on opposition in Matabeleland in the early 1980s. His notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade killed around 20,000 Matabele in an effort to stamp out resistance.
But President Mugabe will be cautious about moving decisively against his critics today.
Almost all the senior figures in the security services have links to Solomon Mujuru or come from his home area - Chikomba. The next week could not just be critical for the future of Zimbabwe, but for southern Africa as a whole.