The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe said Tuesday that opposition to President Robert Mugabe has reached a tipping point because the people no longer fear the regime and believe they have nothing left to lose.
Zimbabwe's government and party are in disarray and can no longer govern effectively, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Dell said in an interview with The Associated Press. Growing numbers within the regime and the party also want Mugabe to step down, he said.
Dell stressed he was not advocating or predicting any violent overthrow of the government, but noted there was disaffection within the military and a split in security forces. The economy is in freefall and the people believe the government is taking away their last hope, he said.
"The key new element in the equation that has become obvious over the past 10 to 12 days is the new spirit of resistance, some would say defiance, on the part of the people," Dell said.
"The people have lost their willingness to go on. They are losing their fear," he added. "They believe they have nothing left to lose."
Mugabe's government has come under increasing international criticism for its treatment of the opposition, with activists alleging police have disrupted their gatherings and beaten their leaders.
Opposition activist Sekai Holland, 64, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio in an interview Wednesday that she was severely beaten while in police custody and she will die if she is barred from leaving Zimbabwe for medical treatment.
"Of course I will die. I will have an early death," Holland said, speaking secretly from her hospital bed on a borrowed cell phone in the capital, Harare.
Holland said she was arrested as she attempted to board a flight to South Africa on Saturday and was under police guard at the hospital.
Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change reported new abuses Tuesday, saying 35 of its supporters were hospitalized from beatings by ruling party youths and state agents patrolling townships in unmarked vehicles.
"We have urged other African governments to speak out more strongly and some of them have," said Dell. "The one thing you will notice is none of them are speaking up in Mugabe's defense anymore. There is a kind of embarrassed silence in the region now."
South Africa issued its strongest criticism of Zimbabwe to date on Tuesday but said it would stick to its policy of quiet diplomacy because open criticism had yielded no results.
"The beating and violence against any citizens of Zimbabwe is obviously unacceptable to us as government," South African Cabinet spokesman Themba Maseko said.
In Zimbabwe, Tsvangirai met with South Africa's ambassador on Tuesday to protest the silence of African leaders "while these atrocities are being perpetrated by one of their number."
Tsvangirai said the silence made a "complete mockery" of South Africa's abolition of apartheid and its transition to democracy, the opposition said in a statement.
Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa — who takes over the presidency of the 13-nation Southern African Development Community in August — said Tuesday that he hoped the bloc would develop a common stance on the crisis in the coming days.
Dell said the violence directed against Zimbabweans by the government was causing a split in the security forces. He said rank-and-file police officers increasingly were reluctant to carry out such attacks.
Dell said the police themselves were telling opposition activists arrested and savagely beaten while in custody that the attacks were carried out by Mugabe's secret police and the Green Bombers, the ruling ZANU-PF's militant youth militia.
"Police are trying to distance themselves from the repression. Police officers feel insecure. We are told some are afraid to wear their uniforms back and forth to work," said Dell, noting that most police live in the poor, high-density suburbs of Harare and are afraid of reprisals from their neighbors.
Mugabe, he said, has always ruled with a combination of repression and patronage. But with a collapsing economy, he can no longer provide adequate patronage. A regular police officer, Dell said, makes only about $20 a month and is also suffering from the economic freefall.
The economy, he said, is falling so fast, that in just the last eight weeks the Zimbabwe dollar has gone from 5,000 to the U.S. dollar on the black market to 20,000.
Tensions within the ruling ZANU-PF party are rising, he added, largely because of the impending succession question. Mugabe, 83, has indicated he might run for another term next year, but many in the party want him to step down now and there is fighting over who will succeed him, said Dell.