Former South African leader Nelson Mandela on Wednesday joined a growing chorus of African officials criticizing Zimbabwe's leadership, further shaking longtime President Robert Mugabe's grip on power.
Mugabe, who long shrugged off Western criticism and sanctions, has seen hitherto staunch allies in Africa, as well as China, turn away one by one in recent days, leaving him facing nearly complete international isolation.
He has vowed to proceed with Friday's presidential runoff election despite the pullout of his main opponent because of political violence that has left 85 opposition supporters dead and more than 3,000 injured. Mugabe appeared determined to tough it out despite the foreign pressure, his lack of a majority in parliament and a collapsed economy, ruling party officials said.
Addressing a dinner in London, the iconic Mandela, who now rarely comments on politics, broke his silence to decry the "tragic failure of leadership" in Zimbabwe.
"We look back at much human progress, but we sadly note so much failing as well," he said, mentioning conflicts in the Middle East, Iraq and Darfur to the high-powered audience that included former President Clinton, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and actor Robert DeNiro.
"Nearer to home," Mandela continued, "we had seen the outbreak of violence against fellow Africans in our own country and the tragic failure of leadership in our neighboring Zimbabwe."
Another South African Nobel laureate and apartheid struggle figure, the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, spoke out in stronger terms, telling Australian television that Mugabe had "mutated into something quite unbelievable. He has really turned into a kind of Frankenstein for his people."
Adding to the pressure on Zimbabwe, 300 opposition victims of political violence walked from a park in central Harare to the South African Embassy late Wednesday afternoon, where they sought asylum. They were among 1,300 activists who had taken refuge in the opposition headquarters from rampaging groups of ruling party supporters across Zimbabwe. They were left with nowhere to stay when the Movement for Democratic Change building was raided Monday.
Looking fearful as they walked, some carried their belongings in plastic sacks, some were limping, some had bandaged arms. Among them were women.
As the horror of Zimbabwe's election violence has played out on television screens, Mugabe has seen his support deteriorate even among southern African leaders normally loath to criticize one another. There have been calls for the election to be postponed from Kenya, Senegal, Botswana, Zambia and the security troika of the Southern African Development Community -- Tanzania, Swaziland and Angola.
South African President Thabo Mbeki has maintained his controversial "quiet diplomacy," but Mbeki's spokesman said Wednesday that a high-level negotiator had been sent to try to mediate a settlement including the postponement of Friday's vote.
Zimbabwe's ruling party, ZANU-PF, has also been repudiated by the president of South Africa's ruling African National Congress, Jacob Zuma, in a blow to the view that it continues to share liberation-struggle credentials with Zuma's party.
Mugabe plans to have himself swiftly inaugurated for another five-year term after a vote Friday, according to ZANU-PF sources. He also plans to quickly name his Cabinet.
The president would include some from outside ZANU-PF as ministers and label it a government of "national unity," the sources said. But opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who this week pulled out of the presidential vote because of the violence and Mugabe's unwillingness to cede power under any condition, will be excluded from the Cabinet, according to the sources.
"We'll inaugurate him [Mugabe]," said a ZANU-PF official in an interview, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He will proceed to appoint a Cabinet for a government of national unity, excluding Tsvangirai, and then life goes on, as if nothing happened."
Mugabe still lacks the parliamentary majority required to govern effectively, but ZANU-PF officials are confident they can entice opposition parliament members to join a unity government.
Tsvangirai announced that he would not negotiate with Mugabe if the ruling party pressed ahead with the election after weeks of violence.
"The issue is that we will not have anything to do with a post-[June] 27 government arising out of this so-called election. We have said we are prepared to negotiate on this side of the 27th, not the other side of the 27th," Tsvangirai said at a news conference at his home in Harare, the capital.
He later returned to the Dutch Embassy, where he sought refuge this week because of security concerns.
The regime has made it plain that it plans to proceed with the vote, with a banner headline in the state-owned Herald on Wednesday stating, "Tsvangirai can't pull out." Zimbabwe Election Commission Chairman George Chiweshe rejected Tsvangirai's withdrawal from the election, saying it was too late. "Any withdrawal verbal or written is a nullity," he said.
Mugabe has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980, but Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change came close to ousting ZANU-PF in the March 29 elections, forcing the ruling party to minority status in parliament for the first time. Tsvangirai won more votes than Mugabe -- about 48% compared with about 43% -- but not enough to avoid a runoff, according to official figures.
He says he won outright, with more than 50%.
Mugabe, once seen as a liberation hero throughout Africa, has launched successive violent operations against his people when faced with a political threat, including the Matabeleland massacres in which thousands were killed in the 1980s, and land takeovers after 2000 that saw commercial white farmers and tens of thousands of their farmworkers evicted. In 2005, about 700,000 people in opposition strongholds had their homes destroyed.
Mugabe, 84, has also presided over Zimbabwe's economic collapse, with poverty and hunger afflicting a nation once seen as southern Africa's breadbasket. Mugabe blames "illegal" Western sanctions for his country's ills, although the measures are aimed at the travel and finances of top regime officials.
A senior ZANU-PF figure acknowledged in a phone interview with The Times that party leaders were worried about the growing pressure from groups including the African Union and the Southern African Development Community. At the same time, he said, African leaders should be concerned about the future impact.
"If there's a move by African countries, the AU or SADC and the U.N. to try and force the removal of ZANU-PF from power and impose Tsvangirai, that will be a fatal move," he said. "Yes, Zimbabwe is a small country militarily and economically, but it will have serious repercussions in Africa.
"If the AU and SADC are not careful in their own backyards, Africa is gone," continued the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Most of the African countries would have to suffer defeat and say, 'Let Europe take control of the whole of Africa.' In other words, in 20 or 30 years' time, the whole of Africa will be Europeanized."
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Zimbabwe was a "disaster in the making" that could turn into a Rwanda, a reference to the 1994 genocide. The government of Ghana also expressed concern about the deteriorating political situation and called on Mugabe to find a peaceful solution and stop the "violence and mayhem."
Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler, had its own way of slapping Mugabe's wrist: Queen Elizabeth II moved to strip Mugabe of his honorary knighthood, a highly unusual move not taken since 1989, when former Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu had his honorary title taken away during the Balkan nation's revolution.
In addition, the England and Wales Cricket Board canceled a tour to England by Zimbabwe's team planned for next year.
The British government announced plans to widen travel and financial sanctions already aimed at 160 ZANU-PF government figures. The plan is to include their family members on the list of sanctioned individuals.
Times staff writer Kim Murphy in London and a special correspondent in Harare contributed to this report.