Leading article: A flicker of hope

Too many hopes have proved vain in Zimbabwe over the months and years for us to set much store by the agreement signed in Harare yesterday by President Mugabe and the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Yet the fact that a meeting took place at all, that an agreement was signed, and that hands were shaken, if only for the benefit of the cameras, cannot but represent progress.

It is only a month since despair set in, not only in Zimbabwe, but across southern Africa as a whole, when Mr Tsvangirai decided to withdraw from a run-off that was stacked against him. But the reason he gave for abandoning the electoral fight was not the unfairness of the contest, but the killings and maimings of his supporters.

Mr Mugabe's victory – which was nothing of the kind – was followed by mostly pusillanimous condemnation from around the region. The British attempt to impose UN sanctions failed at the last hurdle. The desperate plight of ordinary Zimbabweans was seen primarily as an African problem demanding an African solution. The message to the rest of the world was "hands off".

Yesterday's agreement is the first sign that perhaps an African solution might be possible, and that South Africa's President, Thabo Mbeki, could facilitate it. So far, agreement goes no further than a framework for talks. It is not the power-sharing deal that Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change is aiming for. If, however, it heralds a co-operative effort to find a solution to Zimbabwe's many ills, it is an advance on anything that has happened before.

As Zimbabweans become poorer, hungrier and more desperate, time is of the essence. The timetable must not be allowed to slip.