Upbeat Tsvangirai looks to the future

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The Independent Online

It is a photograph that will seem inconceivable to most people in Zimbabwe.

Robert Mugabe, the only president the country has known since independence, shaking hands with the man who he has done everything to destroy, Morgan Tsvangirai. Neither man shows much emotion despite the historic import. That role goes instead to the architect of this grip and grin, Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's President, standing to the right of the pair and smiling broadly. It is exactly the photo opportunity the embattled mediator needed, even if it is a long way short of the deal he has been tasked with delivering.

It is the first time the political rivals have met in a decade. For once the 84-year-old Mugabe looks a little more his age, slightly stooped, a picture of uncomfortable reserve. The man who said recently that only God would remove him from office offers his hand to the man whom he has derided, threatened and had beaten.

They have met only once before a decade ago, when Mr Mugabe was still the liberation hero and Mr Tsvangirai a trade union leader.

Mr Mugabe – who holds a string of degrees – likes to dismiss his rival as uneducated. But yesterday it was the son of a bricklayer who appeared the more assured.

The younger man steps confidently forward, his famously round face stopping short of a smile but looking far more at ease. He was sufficiently upbeat after concluding "talks about talks" to joke with reporters that the negotiations ahead would be between the "ruling party" and the "winning party".

Prising a deal out the man who has been in power for 28 years could prove a harder task but Mr Tsvangirai, who his own supporters have long referred to as "Mr President", looked more comfortable than the man who has shed so much blood to hold on to that title.