The impending transfer of authority from Zimbabwe's increasingly discredited rulers to a newly empowered grassroots political movement is fueling savage intimidation - killings of black opponents, invasions of white-owned farms, and the assassination of white farmers.
What unites those killed, both black and white, is their support of the Movement of Democratic Change, Zimbabwe's new popular counter to the 20-year rule of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).
Britain and the United States have condemned the violence, and directly criticized President Robert Mugabe's refusal to honor high court verdicts. South Africa has been attempting to broker a truce, and a return to normality.
But Washington, London, and Pretoria, South Africa must now be much more forceful in demanding free and fair elections soon if they are to preserve Zimbabwe's economic potential and the human rights of its citizens.
At stake, and the motivator of officially inspired violence, is Mr. Mugabe's future, and the future of the political and economic edifice he and his cronies have erected. In recent years, that edifice has become increasingly authoritarian and corrupt.
Mugabe has been building and buying mansions in Zimbabwe and abroad at an accelerating rate. He has supervised the letting of large-scale public works contracts to consortia led by his nephew.
Without consulting Parliament, he also dispatched 12,000 soldiers to the Democratic Republic of Congo to battle rebels there. Zimbabwe has bankrolled those troops, but it is widely believed Mugabe and several key colleagues are benefiting personally from exploitation of the diamond and mineral riches of that troubled nation. The Zimbabwean Army's high casualty rate hasn't helped.
What has transformed both Mugabe and Zimbabwe? As a young African nationalist, he came to prominence in the early 1960s. Unlike Joshua Nkomo, Zimbabwe's then-nationalist standard-bearer, the Jesuit-trained Mugabe was ascetic, principled, and courageous.
His quick intelligence and strategic acumen impressed many visitors, including me, on numerous occasions. Later, during Zimbabwe's guerrilla war of the 1970s, Mugabe gained control of ZANU as a political commissar and superb fund-raiser among Marxist and socialist allies.
As head of government since 1980, Mugabe was ruthless with presumed opponents, but pragmatic in terms of the economy and white farmers.
It is only during the last decade, and after having children with a young secretary who became his second wife, that Mugabe began to demonstrate the avarice and lust for absolute power that has now become his and his people's undoing.
Now the traditionally forgiving citizens have had enough. They handed electoral defeat to Mugabe in February, voting overwhelmingly against constitutional changes. They refuse to tolerate inflation that has soared to 70 percent; acute shortages of foreign exchange that have frequently left Zimbabweans short of fuel for cars, trucks, and tractors; and the meltdown of the once-prosperous economy.
The farm invasions - nominally by aggrieved, landless, war veterans, but really by government rent-a-thugs - have caused consternation at a time of the annual tobacco auctions. Tobacco is the mainstay of Zimbabwe's profitable agricultural exports.
Zimbabwe isn't usually in such chaos. It has the best educated population in Africa per capita, a very balanced economy - with a variety of cash crops, minerals, and manufactured goods to export. Mugabe's greed, compounded by the dubious decision to help occupy Congo, plunged Zimbabwe over the economic edge in 1999, and precipitously further this year.
Africa has its many natural disasters, but Zimbabwe's collapse is entirely man-made. The acute danger now is that Mugabe will persist in violently trying to forestall defeat.
Zimbabwe has descended into the abyss of decay. Only tough intervention by Washington, London, and Pretoria can prevent Zimbabwe from collapsing.
The three powers now need to compel Mugabe to honor the law, harness his rent-a-thugs, and promise honest elections in June.
* Robert I. Rotberg directs the Harvard Kennedy School's Program on Intrastate Conflict, and is president of the World Peace Foundation.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society