In 1980, Zimbabwe said goodbye to Ian Smith’s misguided attempt to resist the tide of history. Smith wisely cut a deal while he still could. There was optimism in the air. Zimbabwe’s first election for majority rule was controversial, but most people looked the other way. After all, wasn’t the declared winner, Robert Mugabe, talking of letting bygones be bygones?

There were skeptics, mostly in the west, but prominent Africans like Mwalimu Julius Nyerere also saw a rocky road ahead. In a now well-quoted conversation, he told Mr. Mugabe that he had inherited a “jewel” and urged him not to throw it away. How prophetic these words seem now.

Three decades later, Zimbabwe’s one-party state and economy are falling to pieces. Mr. Mugabe and his senior Zanu-PF leadership is trying desperately to cling to power by brutalising the population. As Human Rights Watch has documented over the past several weeks, groups of army officers, war veterans, intelligence officers and Zanu-PF supporters are arming themselves and drawing up lists of MDC supporters. At night, these groups set about kidnapping and torturing. Some twenty MDC supporters have been murdered. This is all disturbingly reminiscent of the dark days of the late 1980s and the Matabeleland massacres, in which thousands of mostly Ndebele civilians died at the hands of Mr. Mugabe’s security forces. The world stood by then.

Human Rights Watch documented three such killings earlier this week. One incident sums up the reign of terror Zanu-PF is inflicting on Zimbabwe’s rural communities.

On April 23, in Manicaland, war veterans abducted 12 MDC supporters and took them to Chiwetu Rest Camp – an informal torture centre in Makoni West district. When the MDC activists arrived at the camp they found around 50 war veterans and Zanu-PF supporters – 12 of whom were armed. The MDC activists were ordered to sit on the ground and shots were fired into the air. As they tried to flee, the war veterans fired again, this time at the group, hitting three of them. It is clear that Mr. Mugabe and his security chiefs have unleashed this violent campaign and have delayed announcing the 29 March election results – specifically to terrorise the majority of Zimbabweans who want change. They hope to cow the people into staying at home in a second round of the presidential election later this month. Under Zimbabwean law, this run-off should have been held 21 days after the first poll, or 19 April. But in Mr Mugabe’s world, when you appoint the election commission, you get to call the shots, whatever the law says.

In the coming weeks, the violence will intensify further. Following the usual Zanu-PF pattern, the thugs will be reined in just before any presidential run-off in an attempt to trick the few pliant observers allowed in.

There may even be reports that Mr. Mugabe is considering a government of national unity. But don’t be fooled. There will be a devil or two in the detail: he will claim to be the legitimately elected incumbent, demand to stay president and insist that his senior officials – including those responsible for the current killings and torture – keep their jobs. And watch out for Thabo Mbeki (again) claiming victory for his “quiet diplomacy”. But very few other people will be fooled. Most of us have learned from Zanu-PF’s past. The MDC is almost certainly not going to be drawn into a 1980’s style unity pact and watch itself be dismembered by Zanu-PF. Zimbabwe is not Kenya: no government of national unity can succeed with the architects of Zimbabwe’s still repressive one-party state still at the helm. So the MDC has no real incentive to join in. If it did, the leadership would end up alienating their long-suffering support base.

Zimbabwe, rather like the Congo under Mobutu, has fallen as far as it can in economic terms.

The west can do little about the wave of violence affecting ordinary Zimbabweans. But it can hold out for a just, sustainable outcome and reject a Zanu-PF-led solution. Western taxpayers will baulk at funding economic reconstruction in Zimbabwe if the government still includes abusers like Emmerson Mnangagwa, Constantine Chiwenga, Gideon Gono and Perence Shiri (to name but a few). All have been implicated in carrying out or funding the current wave of violence, and many before it. This also reflects Mr. Mbeki’s folly in repeatedly offering them immunity as part of his so-called mediation. They have simply banked the offer and gone on one last orgy of abuse to preserve their own interests.

Responsibility for Zimbabwe’s misery lies squarely with Zanu-PF. But the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) has been complicit. Reports of violence, torture and intimidation have been flooding from Zimbabwe for years but SADC has failed to intervene effectively to protect Zimbabweans. SADC member states should be saying now to Zanu-PF – in public and in private – that the appalling state-sponsored violence means that it can no longer be business as usual. They should add that the “result” of any run-off later this month will not be recognised.

Also, they can insist that any future discussions on a government of national unity include the dismemberment of Zanu-PF’s repressive and corrupt apparatus, the removal of those who run it and a full set of constitutional and administrative reforms. Leaving Mr. Mugabe’s lot in control would be like putting drunks in charge of Tanzania Breweries.

The question is: will SADC speak up for the victims? Privately, SADC leaders acknowledge that Thabo Mbeki is not up to the job of mediating a solution. He has no credibility as an honest broker. He lets Mr. Mugabe fix the terms of any dialogue, renege on agreements and use violence at will. We can say that the days of Zimbabwe’s dictatorship are numbered. But the human rights of the poorest and most vulnerable are some way from being assured. African Union action is needed now.