In Zimbabwe, a plummeting economy and deepening food shortages have drawn new pleas for help this week from religious and government leaders in neighboring South Africa.  Tuesday in Johannesburg, Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube said Harare?s economic policies are exacerbating food shortages in the rural south, which could soon bring deficiencies to urban areas.  And in what appears to be a departure from Pretoria?s stance on the crisis, Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma says her country and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) should intervene to rescue Harare?s sinking economy.  Zimbabwe-born pro-democracy activist Annabel Hughes is former executive director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Trust.  She says that despite the encouraging words from Zimbabwe?s neighbor, the policies of Harare?s one-man ruler are what is stifling change.

?Regardless of what is going on, everything is in the hands of Robert Mugabe.  Everything.  The state, the food.  So unless something happens with Robert Mugabe, nothing is going to turn around,? she said.

Beginning this month, the government ordered shop and business owners to cut the price of basic goods, such as cornmeal, sugar, bread, and meat, and observe inflation-reducing price caps to halt a rampant escalation of costs.  Zimbabwe businesses effectively cleared their shelves of goods alst week, and argued that the price cuts would prevent them from making a profit.  Annabel Hughes says the government?s latest pricing moves have compounded an already deteriorating situation.

?What is going to happen, I think, just like any other country, where  hyperinflation has overtaken the economy, is that people will just start bartering on an informal basis.  They?ll cut the shop side altogether.  Because of these rules that are coming in, it?s going to make it all unsustainable.  They will obviously find a way of getting food for people to trade, but not necessarily dealing with Zimbabwe dollars,? she said.

Earlier, the Mugabe land redistribution policy that fostered a takeover of rural farms by black Zimbabweans was blamed for a decline in rural productivity.  But now that the economic crisis is escalating in the cities, pro-democracy activist Hughes says she believes that efforts by SADC to mediate the situation may be coming too late.

?They should have done so many years ago. I really, really point a finger at South Africa for ignoring this crisis for as long as they have.  They have received warnings time and time and time again about what is going on in Zimbabwe and have just turned a blind eye and have claimed that they have been working on a quiet diplomacy basis, which is as far as I?m concerned, the biggest travesty of all time because they?ve been doing nothing, knowing that this economy is going rapidly down the drain,? she said.

Reacting to the South African foreign minister?s apparent divergence from Pretoria?s quiet diplomacy policy, Hughes tempers her optimism with an assessment that the Mugabe government?s political objectives far outweigh the regime?s willingness to compromise and listen to the advice of others.

?I think it?s absolutely fantastic that they?ve finally admitted to the fact that Zimbabwe needs help.  I mean, how are they going to do it is the next thing because they?ve got to work with a regime that refuses to take any advice from anybody, that refuses any involvement from anybody, and who are set on winning the elections in 2008, and that?s all they care about,? she noted.

With forecasts of dramatic food scarcity in the rural south and impending deprivation coming to urban areas, the former Zimbabwe Democracy Trust executive predicts that the ruling ZANU-PF political party will do all that it can to ensure it maintains a hold on power in next year?s elections.

?There is no way that unless you are a supporter of ZANU-PF, you?re going to get food.  People have been starving for a long time, particularly in southern Zimbabwe, where the Archbishop Pius comes from.  Southern Zimbabwe has always been left out in the cold in connection with ZANU-PF because they supported a different party,? she pointed out.