President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party is expected to sit down for talks with Zimbabwe's opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, in South Africa on Saturday. Peta Thornycroft reports for VOA that the talks organized by South African president Thabo Mbeki are the first serious dialogue between the two parties.

Although the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and the ruling ZANU-PF met briefly for talks in 2003, the talks fell apart.

This past March, the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, appointed President Mbeki to mediate dialogue between the two sides.

The MDC has sent Mr. Mbeki its roadmap for a better Zimbabwe in early April calling for substantial legislative reforms and a new constitution.

ZANU-PF postponed the talks two weeks ago, reportedly because it had not finished crafting its proposal for President Mbeki.

ZAMU-PF's negotiators are justice minister Patrick Chinamasa and former security minister Nicholas Goche. Both men are seen by political analysts in Zimbabwe as very loyal to President Robert Mugabe.

The MDC, which has two wings, will be represented by the secretary generals from both factions, Tendai Biti and Welshman Ncube.

President Mbeki is due to report on the meetings to SADC by the end of the month. He has said on two occasions now, that progress so far was encouraging.

The MDC, which nearly defeated ZAMU-PF in 2000 when the party was only nine months old, has lost much of that early promise.

The party says it has been persecuted since shortly after its launch, and about 400 of its officials and members have been killed in political violence.

Since March, hundreds of officials mostly from urban branches around the party's Harare stronghold, have been arrested, beaten or forced from their homes at night.

Morgan Tsvangirai, founding president of the MDC and several of his senior colleagues were beaten when they were arrested on March 11.

Most political meetings called by the opposition have been banned by Mr. Mugabe. He is seeking endorsement from ZANU-PF to again be the party's presidential candidate when national elections are held next March.

Zimbabwe's economy is failing with hyper inflation growing more than 50 percent per month. The overall inflation rate is believed to be more than 4,000 percent.