For three days last week, about 50 Zimbabweans met in South Africa to discuss the economic and political situation in their country, as well as what steps are necessary to establish real democracy there.

The Zimbabweans met at a game park outside Pretoria. One of the remarkable things about the meeting, several of the participants said, was that they had no fear of being arrested. If it had taken place in their country, it would have been illegal.

The meeting was organized by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, which played a prominent role in that country's transition from apartheid to democracy, and is now widely seen by analysts as an effective democracy watchdog. Members of Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party had been invited to attend the conference, but declined.

For many of the participants, politicians, religious leaders, trade unionists, commercial farmers, lawyers and human rights activists, the meeting marked the first time they could discuss their country's future in relaxed circumstances.

By the end of the three days of talks, all the participants had reached a consensus that the best way forward for Zimbabwe was the creation of a transitional authority leading to new elections in the country.

Though all agreed that this was the best way to proceed, they also agreed that a major obstacle remained. None of the delegates was able to say how the ruling ZANU-PF party and its leader, President Robert Mugabe, could be encouraged, or forced, to the negotiating table.

One of the final resolutions from the conference included a call for the establishment of a group to help negotiate the difficult road to a transitional authority.

Though the Zimbabweans at the meeting considered it an important milestone for their country, several of them expressed one disappointment. They say about a dozen members of South Africa's ruling African National Congress had been invited to attend the conference, but most declined at the last moment.