President Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe with increasing intolerance since 1980.
But now, a strong word from President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, backed by Washington, could send Mr. Mugabe toppling.
Just as an attempt to resist the real electoral results in Yugoslavia proved the undoing of ex-President Slobodan Milosovic, so Mugabe's unceasing attacks on his new opposition movement, and his brutal attempt last week to keep a new private radio station from broadcasting, may herald his own fall from power.
In parliamentary elections in June that European Union and other monitors called unfree and not fair, Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party won a few more seats than the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), probably by rigging the results.
Since then, security forces loyal to Mugabe have attacked MDC officials, thrown bombs at MDC offices, and attempted to intimidate the opposition party just as they have continued to intimidate white farmers and rural farmworkers.
Earlier this month, after the Zimbabwe High Court overturned a long-entrenched government ban on private broadcasting endeavors, the police raided the new Capitol Radio station and shut it down. In two early- morning raids, they removed broadcast and transmission equipment.
The police sought to arrest all of the directors of the station and issued an arrest warrant for the private station's lead lawyer, charging him in the Orwellian manner with "obstructing justice." The minister of home affairs even said last week that the station would be permitted to go on the air again "over my dead body."
After the High Court issued restraining orders against the government, Mugabe quickly retaliated by publishing new, crudely drafted ordinances controlling independent radio stations. Clearly, Milosovic-like, Mugabe was intent on protecting the government monopoly of information conveyed by radio - the medium most influential throughout rural Zimbabwe. The government has controlled all radio and television stations since 1980. It also owns the country's main daily newspapers, although since last year there is an independent daily as well.
Zimbabweans took to the streets against Mugabe in 1997 and 1998. In February, Mugabe lost a constitutional referendum - the regime's first-ever ballot- box defeat. Then he and his party were humbled in the disputed June elections, the MDC winning every urban parliamentary seat and nearly all rural seats except those in Mugabe's own ethnic constituencies.
Mugabe himself is not up for reelection as president until 2002, but MDC parliamentarians have been attempting to move motions of impeachment on grounds of massive corruption.
Pressure for Mugabe to leave office has been welling up within the nation since the June election, and since then, Mugabe has refused to recognize the meaning of that major critique of his leadership. He has not brought Zimbabwean troops home from the Congo, reduced escalating government deficits, attacked soaring inflation, or taken steps to curb corruption. Instead, he has behaved with an insouciant sense of invulnerability that has infuriated most Zimbabweans, forced as they have been to tighten their personal belts.
Significantly, senior members of Mugabe's own party, many in the inner circle, also want him to go.
They envision the demise of ZANU-PF and their own political mortality if Mugabe stays.
If South African President Mbeki, backed by Washington and London, criticized Mugabe's rule publicly, those in ZANU-PF who anticipate the swift demise of Mugabe's regime will be emboldened, and might act bloodlessly to rid Zimbabwe of its wily despot. A signal from powerful South Africa might also encourage the people of Zimbabwe's cities to take to the streets, as Yugoslav citizens did in Belgrade.
Washington worries that any such move by President Mbeki would destabilize all of Southern Africa, and weaken South Africa itself. But the reverse argument is stronger: Tension in Zimbabwe has already weakened the South African currency and caused investors to shun South Africa and the region. The longer Mugabe remains in office, the more damage he can do to his own country and to South Africa.
Concerted action is the best remedy for the region and for the future of the people of Zimbabwe.
No massacres are in the offing, but Mugabe's security officials will continue to brutalize his opponents and undercut the country's already parlous economy (GDP per capita has plunged from $600 in 1995 to $400 this year and less is forecast for next year) until he is eased from office. Shortages of essential foodstuffs are predicted to become common this month or next in a Zimbabwe that has almost no foreign-exchange reserves.
IF MUGABE IS NOT encouraged to depart, residents of the cities may themselves follow the Yugoslav example.
It would certainly be timely for Washington and London to encourage South Africa to begin to show its displeasure at what Mugabe has done to defy the democratic impulses of Zimbabwe's citizens.
Robert I. Rotberg is director of the Kennedy School's Program on Intrastate Conflict, and president of the World Peace Foundation.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society