For years, South African President Thabo Mbeki's approach on the growing autocracy in Zimbabwe has been to use "quiet diplomacy" - supporting President Robert Mugabe in public, cajoling him in private. This used to satisfy the United States.
But that's begun to change. President Bush is newly set on "ending tyranny in our world"; his team calls Zimbabwe one of six "outposts of tyranny." Mr. Bush's ambassador to South Africa, Jendayi Frazer, hinted in a speech last month that Zimbabwe's crisis threatens US support for the region. If African organizations are "not seen to act forcefully against tyranny," she said, "it is going to be a problem in terms of trying to build international support and resources."
Now Zimbabwe holds parliamentary elections Thursday. Critics expect they'll be flawed, like the 2000 vote in which Mr. Mugabe was reelected. If so, they may cloud Mr. Mbeki's vision for an "African renaissance" that would bring in billions in Western aid dollars in exchange for stronger democracy and better governance.
"If Mbeki cares" how his plans are perceived by the world's wealthy nations, "he's in trouble" over Zimbabwe, says Tom Lodge, a political scientist at University of the Witwatersrand here.
As African crises go, Zimbabwe's is not the most dramatic. Some 4.8 million of its 12 million people may be on the verge of hunger, according to the Famine Early Warning System Network. But its masses aren't suffering like those in Africa's two biggest conflict zones: Some 180,000 people have died in Sudan's Darfur region since 2003, according to the UN; and 3.2 million have died since 1999 in Congo, according to an estimate by the International Rescue Committee.
But Zimbabwe's recent crackdown on press and political freedoms make it a crucial barometer of how hard African leaders are willing to push their comrades to improve leadership.
Western nations, especially the US, are increasingly tying aid to good governance. Madagascar, an island off Africa, this month became the first nation to get money - $110 million - under Bush's Millennium Challenge Account. It rewards countries for financial accountability, economic reform, and democracy.
One indicator to watch this week is the response to the elections by the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC). Earlier this month, Mbeki told reporters: "I have no reason to think that anybody in Zimbabwe will militate in a way so that the elections will not be free and fair," putting implicit pressure on the SADC to validate the vote. If the SADC and the African Union, a new United Nations of Africa, both declare the elections free and fair - amid evidence to the contrary - it could compromise the groups in the eyes of Western nations.
But the West's concerns aren't the only thing on Mbeki's mind. The issue of land looms large. Ever since colonial days, most good land in southern Africa has been in the hands of whites. Starting in 2000, Mugabe let supporters snatch thousands of white-owned farms. It caused social upheaval that led to inflation of 600 percent and millions of Zimbabweans - black and white - fleeing.
Mbeki faces land pressure of his own. South Africa's Landless People's Movement aims to "take back" land owned by 60,000 white farmers. And Mugabe is popular with many in Mbeki's party for taking a bold stand on land. In fact, Mugabe's policies may be one reason he came in third in last year's poll by New African magazine of the "100 Greatest Africans." Nelson Mandela was first; Mbeki, eighth.
Mbeki, Bush's declared "point man" on Zimbabwe, has options for dealing forcefully with its northern neighbor. He could turn off Zimbabwe's electricity supply, which comes from South Africa. But doing that risks a meltdown that could spill over into South Africa. "South Africa isn't prepared to have another failed African state on its doorstep," says Peter Kagwanja of The International Crisis Group in Pretoria. "South Africans will tell you they had to choose between anarchy and totalitarianism" in Zimbabwe.
But now, Mr. Kagwanja says, with Mugabe's land-reform mostly over and the return of relative stability, "the challenge for Mbeki is to dismantle the totalitarian order" that came about partly because of his support.