August 13 must have been a very sad day for millions of ordinary Zimbabweans.
It is not difficult to understand why: they had expected the secretive negotiations between Zanu PF and the two MDC formations to bring them relief, even if that was only a change of national mood at first.
They expected their leaders to put the national interest before their own. Widely cognisant of the hunger, unemployment and national despair, Zimbabweans expected their leaders to work to alleviate this situation.
After almost four days of intense negotiations in the presence of the chief facilitator in the dialogue, South African president Thabo Mbeki, Zimbabweans had good reason to believe finally there would be a breakthrough. Then they were let down over what some may see as petty leadership squabbles.
We are not fooled by pious talk by either President Robert Mugabe or MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai about putting the people first. In a statement he issued after he refused to sign up to what we are told was the last “sticking point”, Tsvangirai said his party had put its “grievances aside” and reached out to Zanu PF “for the good of the people”.
Addressing people who gathered at the Heroes Acre on Monday, Mugabe also rejected “hollow” agreements which did not fully empower the people.
But looking at the last-minute impasse over the past few days, we are left in no doubt that none of them has put the people first. The stalemate is about who wields real executive powers. This is not an academic issue as it involves responsibility for a raft of government policies. A prime minister without authority for government policy could see President Mugabe inflicting further damage on the economy and then blaming his ministers for any short-comings.
But that doesnâ€™t mean the talks should be allowed to break down on an issue that should have been addressed weeks ago.
Conspiracy theorists may see something sinister about the timing. It has the ring of a repeat of the debacle on the eve of the G8 meeting and a sense of revenge for the position South Africa took at the United Nations Security Council against the imposition of sanctions on Zimbabwe.
It is inevitable that events in Zimbabwe are seen in the context of the wider international warfare.
The sad thing is that Zimbabweans are the biggest losers in this high stakes power game.
Mbeki has declared that he is prepared to pursue the process even if it takes six months to clinch a deal.
For his part Mbeki is immersed in the fevered politics of his own country where he is facing a formidable challenge from those within his tripartite alliance and many other forces at play. He is understandably anxious for a success which will eclipse his perceived propitiation of Mugabe.
But we reiterate that it is Zimbabweans who must put their own interests first. It is Zimbabweans who must find a way out of this crisis. South Africans donâ€™t have limitless resources to have their president camped here for six months to sort out a problem which only calls for commitment from all parties.
So far that commitment from the leadership has been missing. The “people first” mantra is completely hollow. What we are witnessing is a struggle for power in the new dispensation. Understandably Tsvangirai believes his electoral victory in March entitles his party to a leading role in any transitional authority. Unless that is cast in stone Mugabe is likely to go on abusing power to the disadvantage of the country.
He is currently fuelling the fires of inflation by extravagant handouts to judges, soldiers and civil servants that the economy simply canâ€™t stand. And now he is joined by the two formations of the MDC in agreeing to a bloated cabinet that will be touted as a national necessity.
Details of the agreements reached â€˜published yesterdayâ€™ would suggest MDC-T negotiators have agreed with Zanu PF on a range of issues which they can expect their supporters and much of civil society to denounce. It is not in the countryâ€™s interests to indulge Zanu PFâ€™s spurious claims to be defending national sovereignty. On the contrary any settlement needs to ensure they canâ€™t damage the fabric of the nation any further.
The confiscation of Tsvangiraiâ€™s travel document at Harare International Airport yesterday, albeit temporarily, illustrates the violation of his freedom of movement that is an everyday hazard in Mugabeâ€™s dictatorship. The current talks are designed precisely to prevent such abuses.
At the end of the day, if Tsvangirai can secure regional backing for a process that is not subject to populist reversals his moment of reflection may prove to have been worthwhile. But, he must be reminded, time is running out and the economy is in headlong decline, not because of sanctions as Mugabe fatuously claims, but plain old-fashioned misrule.