Representatives of Zimbabwe's ruling party and opposition were to sit down together Saturday in Pretoria for the first substantive political discussions in a process mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki at the behest of regional leaders.
Though President Mbeki has sought on previous occasions to broker a solution to the longrunning political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe, his standing as leader of the region's economic powerhouse is very much on the line in the present talks.
Much is at stake as well for both sides in the bitter political standoff, with Zimbabwe's economy spiraling into an abyss and its population racked by hunger and disease.
Sources privy to the talks said Mr. Mbeki had tough words for the two negotiators for the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front of President Robert Mugabe, who had twice failed to show up for scheduled talks in the past several weeks.
Sources said Mr. Mbeki told Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Labor Minister Nicholas Goche to give more evidence that they took the talks seriously.
The clock is running for Mr. Mbeki, who is supposed to brief his peers in the Southern African Development Community on June 30 on the progress of his mediation. Many others, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, also want to see progress.
Representing the two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change will be secretaries general Tendai Biti of the camp led by MDC founder Morgan Tsvangirai and Welshman Ncube of the formation headed by Arthur Mutambara.
South African Local Government Minister Sydney Mufamadi was to chair the talks on Saturday and Sunday.
Sources close to the process said Mr. Mbeki would urge the negotiators to focus on a constitutional amendment that Harare has sent to parliament, and suggest that they consider as an alternative a draft constitution crafted by Ncube and Chinamasa in 2003-2004 when Mr. Mbeki first tried to mediate the crisis - unsuccessfully.
Mr. Mbeki is also expected to urge the two sides to agree to put in place various electoral reforms ahead of presidential, general and local elections in 2008.
International Crisis Group Senior Analyst Sydney Masamvu told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the ZANU-PF amendment tabled in parliament must be addressed if the talks are to make any headway at this point.
Analysts described the talks as an historic milestone, though others noted the seeming foot-dragging by Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF and skepticism on the part of an opposition that has been battered by the state security apparatus since March. The also noted the challenge facing Mr. Mbeki in proving himself an impartial broker.
Also of concern is the absence of Zimbabwean civil society stakeholders, which has led some critics to describe the negotiations overly secretive.
Reporter Ndimyake Mwakalyele took up these issues with two experts on Zimbabwe's longrunning crisis: Noel Kututwa, chairman of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, and Andrew Meldrum, the Johannesburg-based Southern African correspondent for the Guardian and Observer newspapers of Britain.
Meldrum said that despite widespread skepticism as to what the talks will yield, they represented a major step forward in the long-stalled quest for a resolution.
More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...