The latest chapter in another increasingly sorry African independence story unfolded March 11, when Zimbabwean police forces arrested and beat political opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. These actions drew the ire of international observers, who are increasingly weary of Robert Mugabe, and prompted a hailstorm of criticism that has focused on regime change and the possibilities for a post-Mugabe future. From BBC News Africa comes the story of a Zimbabwean pastor who is urging public protests. Another article tells of deep fractures within Mugabe's own party. Indeed, it appears, upon shallow perusal of the latest media, that a popular revolution may soon overthrow Mugabe and install a new, accountable form of government.

That might be the happiest among a number of equally unlikely endings to this tragedy.

Of course, the twenty-four hour news cycle has tended to sensationalize. Robert Mugabe's disastrous economic policies have, since 2000, transferred most of Zimbabwe's white-owned agriculture land to black political elites with no interest in, or aptitude for, farming. The result has been economic devastation on a massive scale, coupled with widespread famine and an inflation rate that, at 1700%, is currently the highest in the world. Basic foods and consumer goods are regularly unavailable. This sort of brutal depression produces a somewhat paradoxical recipe for popular revolt; that is, it both angers a people to violence and, simultaneously, deprives them of the resources necessary to enact a successful revolution. In a country whose armed forces twenty years ago murdered 20,000 civilians, fear is enough to subdue the populace. Indeed, if any change occurs through armed means, it may originate in the police force itself, where dissent is rife throughout the poorly paid lower ranks. In an impending time of crisis, it is the soldiers themselves who must shoot their fellow citizens.

Nor does the impetus for change need to be popular or violent. Sources within the country now report the existence of factional divisions within Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, which has been in power since 1980. Zanu-PF is apparently split into three camps, one composed of Mugabe loyalists and two led by Emmerson Mnangagwa and Solomon Mujuru, both party elites with strong ties to security forces. The divisions have appeared most prominently since December, when Zanu-PF refused to endorse Mugabe's proposal to extend his presidency until 2010. Furthermore, the factions, which have ordinarily been at political loggerheads, seem to have coalesced in recent weeks in response to increased economic instability and the arrest of opposition leader Tsvangirai. Indeed, meetings between Mnangagwa, Mujuru and Tsvangirai, the three leaders most likely to lead a free Zimbabwe, have led to tentative plans for a transitional democracy. Elections could be held as early as March 2008, and Mugabe would be allowed to retire to South Africa afterwards.

Of course, the above outcome is highly dependent on the level of support garnered by elites Mnangagwa and Mujuru, and assumes a certain degree of weakness upon Mugabe's part. The prodding of foreign governments could also be necessary, something that until the Tsvangirai beatings had been noticeably lacking. South Africa, Zimbabwe's most prominent neighbor, has long pursued a policy it calls “quiet diplomacy,” which has essentially meant nothing at all. Now, however, in response to the Tsvangirai beatings, we may be seeing an escalation of South African concern for events to the north. The official South African response to the arrest was rather tepid, calling for Zimbabwe simply to respect the rule of law and the rights of citizens. But President Thabo Mbeki met with Mugabe in person, and all reports indicate that he was severe in expressing his displeasure at Zimbabwe's actions. Mbeki's concern is somewhat less altruistic than one might believe. He's worried about the success of the 2010 World Cup of soccer, which will be held in South Africa, and is being hailed as South Africa's chance to show itself off to the world. Specifically, he's concerned that Zimbabwean refugees, of which there are already three million in South Africa, and whose numbers could be greatly increased by future famine or unrest in Zimbabwe, could spoil his country's image. So he's pleading with Mugabe to keep things civil.

Or what, exactly? It's fairly distressing that the future of an autocratic ruler could be determined by soccer, of all things. It's also dismaying to realize how prevalent situations of this nature are in Africa, a continent whose modern history is littered with disappointment and tragedy. Ultimately it may take a perfect storm of popular unrest, internal dissent and foreign pressure to put Zimbabwe back on track to being the vibrant nation it once was. Until then, it's the same old story.