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William Gumede: Amid the despair of Zimbabwe, there is still hope

There can be no clearer illustration of the impotence of Africa's regional institutions and leaders to find local solutions to the continent's problems than their astounding inaction in the face of Zimbabwe's terrifying descent into the abyss. Any deal to stave off the country's collapse will founder unless it involves both its neighbours and the international community, yet, no matter how dire the situation, there is just no appetite in Africa for an Iraqi-style foreign invasion to rid the country of Robert Mugabe.

Western intervention on this scale is a non-starter. First, African countries – even those who implacably oppose Mugabe – would see foreign forces on African soil as an affront to their dignity, especially if it involves one from Britain, the former colonial master of Zimbabwe. Second, although African countries have this week finally started to put pressure on Mugabe, they have always been opposed to using peacekeeping troops to resolve conflicts within the continent.

The United Nations must be central to the resolution of the Zimbabwean impasse, and the Security Council's condemnation of Mugabe is a necessary if long overdue component in the process. The fact that South Africa and China, who previously blocked discussion of Zimbabwe in the Security Council, joined in the condemnation is another step forward.

In the absence of an opposition in this week's presidential run-off, Mugabe will probably claim victory, no matter how ridiculous that would be. But such a farce can be prevented. Indeed, victory for the people of Zimbabwe can still be salvaged from this bloody wreckage.

Two things have changed. African leaders have finally come to terms with the fact that Mugabe is a shameful blot on the continent. The fact that Angola, Senegal, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda have added their voices to calls for Mugabe to listen to reason is ground-breaking in a continent where the rule is that African leaders do not criticise their peers even if they brutalise their people.

The other obstructive rule has been that African leaders always side with the fellow African leaders when they are criticised by the West, especially by former colonial powers, no matter the merits of the criticisms. That rule has also now been broken. And a third rule, that fellow African movements always close ranks when another is criticised by outsiders, is also now broken.

Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa's ruling ANC, now says that the ANC cannot support Mugabe and Zanu-PF on the basis solely of their shared anti-colonial struggle experience. In the African context this is hugely significant. It means that Mugabe is now for the first time isolated within Africa up to his rallying base.

But how to deal practically with the crisis? A joint African-West solution, backed by the UN, should involve cancelling the presidential re-run, and installing a transitional government based on the results of the 29 March elections, won by Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC. It would be an outrage if a solution involved Mugabe remaining head of Zimbabwe. A deal would also have to involve key Zanu-PF leaders in a transitional cabinet of national unity – without Mugabe at its head.

Disappointingly, during the UN Security Council meeting on Monday, South Africa blocked a stronger statement that would have formally recognised Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the MDC, as the legitimate president, and a deal may have to involve giving Mugabe and his allies some kind of immunity. The advantages of this would outweigh the moral hazards.

African countries must send a peacekeeping force, during a transitional period, with members from all African countries that can contribute. The West could partner such a peacekeeping force by providing financial, material and logistic support.

There is more to be done: an offer from the West to cancel at least some of Zimbabwe's debt will do a lot to restore African confidence. Furthermore, both the UK and the US must pay the disputed funds for land reform, which Mugabe has used as a red flag to mobilise African leaders behind him since 2000. Many Africans still do remember unfulfilled Western promises in many areas – which remain a sore point across the continent.

Amid the despair of the death, destruction and starvation perpetuated by Mugabe – a situation abetted by the inaction of African and Western leaders – there is still the possibility of a solution to what has happened in Zimbabwe. But what's needed is a sense of urgency combined with cool heads and pragmatism.

William Gumede is author of 'Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC'