Yesterday's general strike in Zimbabwe was always likely to be a relative flop. The people of that nation are demoralised and intimidated. Only once in the past decade has there been much general support for a "stayaway". With inflation running at 100,000 per cent and four out of five people unemployed, few of those who still have a job were willing to risk a day's pay. So the weary and impoverished population formed the usual daily queues at banks to withdraw just enough hyperinflationary cash to buy bread, for which they had to queue again at the supermarkets.
The strike was called by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to press for publication of last month's general election results. The poll gave new meaning to the term "secret ballot" when President Robert Mugabe refused to announce the voters' verdict when it turned out not to suit him. A strike was a feeble strategy but it was all the opposition could muster once the High Court, packed with judges who are Mugabe stooges, ruled that it was perfectly legal for Zimbabwe's Electoral Commission to delay its announcement pending a "recount" in 23 constituencies – no doubt to give Mr Mugabe time to rig the results.
The sad truth is that Mr Mugabe's gangster tactics are working. He has had arrested five election officials who were insufficiently malleable. He has had the thuggish militia he calls the "war veterans" invade 60 of the biggest white-owned commercial farms to stir up atavistic resentments from the colonial era. He did this just two weeks before the wheat-planting season, despite projections that Zimbabwe will run out of maize by mid-July. He has had his courtroom cronies give the stamp of specious legality to the process. Yesterday came the first reports of the murder of MDC supporters in a systematic crackdown which saw foreign journalists detained and the arrest of the lawyer representing the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Intimidation is spreading through rural areas north of Harare which were once Mugabe strongholds but which voted for the opposition a fortnight ago. Two hundred MDC supporters have been hospitalised after being brutally beaten into chanting pro-government slogans, in what Mugabe loyalists are calling "Operation Mavhoterapapi" ("Operation where you put your X"). Its aim is to "re-educate" MDC supporters to vote the right way next time and scare civil servants who run polling stations to allow vote-rigging in any future ballot. The violence is escalating. The harsh reality is that the momentum is now very clearly with Mr Mugabe.
Zimbabwe's neighbours have failed its people badly. The summit called by President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia at the weekend, under the aegis of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), did not urge Mr Mugabe to step aside, as the MDC had requested, but merely called for the election results to be announced "expeditiously". The crooked Zimbabwean president failed to attend. And when SADC's designated mediator, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, went to Harare instead, it was only to announce that there was "no crisis" and to call for patience.
The world's patience, however, is exhausted with Mr Mugabe. Mr Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy" has failed. So has the SADC's limp initiative. But though Britain and the US will today raise the Zimbabwe crisis at a UN Security Council meeting, the solution rests with Africa. It is now time for the African Union – a body which has prided itself on requiring human rights, democracy and good governance – to become involved and condemn Mr Mugabe's coup. The African Union's credibility is on the line and, the West should make clear, so is the financial and political backing that the industrialised nations currently offer it.