JOHANNESBURG // It was an electrifying moment - after years of enmity, a decade in which they never met and an election period in which the supporters of one killed more than 100 of the other's supporters, two men shook hands in a hotel conference room in Harare.
The clasp was brief, even perfunctory, but its symbolism kindled hopes for change in Zimbabwe, which has been paralysed by its political impasse and where the economy is ravaged by hyperinflation. Nonetheless, the image could yet turn out to be an empty mirage. Representatives of Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president "re-elected" by a landslide in a one-candidate poll last month, and Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader who won the first round in March, began talks at a secret location in South Africa yesterday.
According to the framework agreement they signed at the Rainbow Towers hotel in the Zimbabwean capital, they acknowledge they "have an obligation of establishing a framework of working together in an inclusive government" and "commit themselves to a dialogue with each other with a view to creating a genuine, viable, permanent and sustainable solution". The sentiments are laudable, and Mr Mugabe's subdued demeanour at the signing was a far cry from his usual bombast, but the key is whether Zanu-PF - and not just Mr Mugabe himself - are prepared to make genuine concessions. The Movement for Democratic Change insisted on a clause "envisaging" that the process would be complete within a fortnight, as it remains doubtful of Zanu-PF's sincerity, and with good reason given the country's recent history.
A new constitution is on the agenda, which opens the way to the creation of an executive prime ministership, along the lines of the settlement reached in Kenya this year after communal violence erupted following a disputed election. Such a move would allow the opposition to be brought into office, while at the same time preserving Mr Mugabe's dignity as a ceremonial president - but there is no guarantee that the octogenarian would not then suffocate his opponent from within government, or even that Mr Tsvangirai would be given the post.
Sydney Masamvu, a Zimbabwe specialist with the International Crisis Group think tank, pointed out that having won more than 85 per cent of the vote in the presidential "run-off", Zanu-PF would have no need to negotiate with a party that received less than 10 per cent if it believed it had a genuine mandate. "It's a major climbdown. Mugabe's chickens have come home to roost," he said, describing the handshake as "hair-raising".
"It's a genesis of a resolution of the crisis. There will be lots of hurdles to clear, but it's an acknowledgement that they can't rule the country without the participation of Morgan Tsvangirai." Neither side will accept the other as executive president, and Mr Masamvu said Mr Tsvangirai's first place in the first round of the presidential election in March, coupled with the parliamentary majority held by the two combined factions of the MDC, meant he was entitled to a share of real power.
"At the very least he will only accept an executive prime minister role. If he is given anything less, the talks will collapse. You can quote me on that, anything less and the negotiation is hollow." A vice presidency for Mr Tsvangirai would be meaningless, Mr Masamvu said, as he would only exercise authority in Mr Mugabe's absence. Which way the settlement goes depends as much on the unresolved succession crisis within Mr Mugabe's factionalised party as the negotiations themselves, according to Mr Masamvu.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, the hardline former security minister responsible for the massacres of as many as 20,000 people in Matabeleland in the 1980s, and often touted as Mr Mugabe's heir-apparent, wants the prime ministership for himself, he said, intending to use it as a stepping-stone to the presidency, while confining the MDC to minor ministerial posts. But Solomon Mujuru, the former military commander who retains loyalty among the armed forces and is seen as an alternative centre of power, believes that "Morgan Tsvangirai should be given his due".
Even so, there remains the prospect of Zanu-PF deciding to try to ride out the storm, as Mr Mugabe has done so many times before in his 28 years in power, and the risk that Mr Tsvangirai, after years in opposition, might accept a less substantive role. The former trade unionist appeared to be preparing his supporters for compromise yesterday, insisting in an open letter that "we are not here to form an elitist pact", but adding: "we have a responsibility to the people of Zimbabwe to show true leadership and to find agreement that will bring an end to the violence, polarisation, poverty and fear in which we have all been living for too long.
"Our fellow countrymen and women look to us to find common ground." It is easier said than done. Writing before the announcement of the talks framework, Peter Fabricius, a South African commentator, pointed out that even during negotiations to end apartheid, "the ANC had several cards in their pack, including the armed struggle and sanctions, which they could use as leverage in negotiations. The MDC holds neither of these cards in its hand and one wonders what they can do to bring pressure to bear on Mugabe."