Signs of hope in Zimbabwe

The unity government that joined strongman Robert Mugabe with democrat Morgan Tsvangirai a year ago has lasted longer and accomplished more than many people expected. But it's in trouble, and needs a push from neighbor South Africa.

The last time the global media checked in on Zimbabwe was a year ago, when strongman Robert Mugabe joined with his political rival in a "unity" government. Few expected this unlikely pairing of a dictator and democrat to last long or accomplish much. Encouragingly, they were wrong.

In the past year, hyperinflation has disappeared – stopped cold by switching to the US dollar. Store shelves are stocked with staples. Schools have opened. The mining industry has restarted. Tourists can once more use ATMs. Builders, painters, and repairmen are working, and political violence has subsided.

Three in 4 Zimbabweans say their economic conditions have improved, according to a poll by US-based Freedom House. This is a remarkable turnaround from the nadir of 2008, when severe hunger and almost universal joblessness plagued Zimbabwe. In elections that year, voters turned against Mr. Mugabe. He may have liberated them from white rule, but his economic mismanagement and political patronage and violence had ruined a country that was once a breadbasket to Africa.

Economic collapse and pressure from fellow African leaders pushed Mugabe into governing with his archrival, Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change. The MDC, which is in charge of the finance ministry and social services, deserves much credit for the progress.

But Mugabe needs another push. His party, which controls the powerful security apparatus, has yet to fulfill the unity agreement with the MDC. Talks to reconcile differences have reached a standstill, and a team of South Africans sent to Zimbabwe to mediate last week left for home without moving the two sides any closer together. Now the MDC is pushing for early elections.

The outsider with the most leverage remains South Africa, under the new and more forceful leadership of Jacob Zuma. This year South Africa hosts the soccer World Cup. The last thing it wants is another refugee exodus from next door, which is likely if the unity government collapses. It should step up the pressure on Mugabe to bridge the political gap in Zimbabwe, and help the country further down the road toward a successful democracy.

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