JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The deepening crisis in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe's security forces arrested and severely beat opposition leaders last week, seems to be finally pushing its African neighbors away from "quiet diplomacy" into tepid protest.
Over the weekend, the African Union joined the US, Britain, and the United Nations in criticizing the government crackdown, and called on Zimbabwe to respect human rights. And in South Africa, there are splits within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party about whether quiet diplomacy actually works. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said African leaders should "hang [their] heads in shame" for not speaking out more forcefully against Mr. Mugabe.
"We call upon the governments of South Africa and the rest of the continent to condemn the Zimbabwe government, demand the immediate release of those arrested, and the restoration of human rights," said Patrick Craven, spokesman of the Confederation of South African Trade Unions, a key base of support for the ANC. Mr. Craven called the government's response thus far "shamefully weak."
As Zimbabwe's economy goes into a free fall, and its security forces clamp down on dissent, African leaders are breaking the taboo against criticizing Mugabe, who is still seen as a liberation hero for having led the struggle to free his country from white rule in the 1960s and 70s. Some analysts say that this change in attitude, together with growing Western pressure, could signal the beginning of the end for Mugabe's regime if the opposition sustains a vigorous protest campaign. Others say that if Zimbabwe has indeed reached a turning point, it may have more to do with machinations within Mugabe's own party, rather than any international pressure or domestic protests.
Already the signs of implosion are obvious. Inflation rates are pushing up to 1,700 percent and most Zimbabweans are living by barter. Food production has dropped, hospitals are declining, and the average life expectancy of a Zimbabwean woman, at 35, is now the lowest in the world.
"I can assure Robert Mugabe that this is the end game," said Arthur Mutambara, leader of a faction within Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) according to Britain's Guardian newspaper. "We are going to do it by democratic means, by being beaten up and by being arrested – but we are going to do it."
But it's too early to tell whether Mugabe's regime will collapse, and many experts say the defining blow will come from within Mugabe's own ruling ZANU-PF party, with a raging succession battle between two possible heirs.
For now, Mugabe's hold over the Zimbabwean military, police, and intelligence services remains strong. Most of his cabinet, and both of his two probable successors – Vice President Joyce Mujuru and Gen. Emmerson Mnangagwa, the rural housing minister – have ties to the Zimbabwean military.
Ms. Mujuru's husband, Gen. Solomon Mujuru, reportedly has contacted British, French, and US envoys in recent weeks, causing Mugabe to warn of a possible internal coup attempt.
There is "an insidious dimension where ambitious leaders have been cutting deals with the British and Americans," Mr. Mugabe said on Friday. He also said Western critics of his crackdown "can go hang."
As for the beating of MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and others, Mugabe was unrepentant. "If they [protest] again, we will bash them again," he said.
Mugabe's strident public utterances have fueled tensions. On Saturday, he accused the opposition of terrorist attacks. "Scores of innocent people going about their legitimate business have fallen prey to terrorist attacks that are part of the desperate and illegal plot to unconstitutionally change the government of the country," he said, in comments carried by the official Sunday Mail.
While many Zimbabweans point to such statements, and his shifting of political heirs from Mujuru to Mnangagwa, as signs that Mugabe is finished, if not unhinged, others say that Mugabe remains firmly in control.
"Mugabe knows that the unifying factor that has kept people loyal is to have elections, and if they have elections in 2008, the ZANU-PF will consolidate around Mugabe, against the MDC," says Chris Maroleng, a leading expert on Zimbabwe at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Tshwane, South Africa.
"This violence is a cyclical thing," says Mr. Maroleng. "Maybe a year out, he starts to arrest or harass the opposition, and maybe four months away from the election, he can ease up on them, but by then the damage is done. What we are seeing is the preparations for the elections of 2008."
In the streets of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, a tense calm prevails. Official media reports suggested that a state of emergency might be declared. But in townships like Glen View, an unofficial state of emergency already exists, with residents being assaulted by police. Even on First Street, Harare's main shopping street of department stores, cafes, and boutiques, riot police were spotted this past week carrying batons, teargas, and firearms.
In South Africa, pressure for the country to step up criticism of Mugabe is pushing government officials into a defensive mode. "We have constantly maintained that the solutions to the problems of Zimbabwe will be resolved by the people of Zimbabwe," said South African Foreign Affairs Department spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa.
Yet the MDC's spokesman in South Africa, Kumbulani Sibanda, still holds out hope that South African President Thabo Mbeki will finally speak out against Mugabe. "[Mbeki] is out of the country at the moment, and he hasn't spoken about it yet. Maybe [ANC leaders] are waiting for the president to return before they decide to say something new."
• A reporter who could not be named for security reasons contributed from Harare, Zimbabwe.