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The Zimbabwe opposition leader's withdrawal on Sunday from this week's presidential election run-off will pressure regional governments to act against veteran President Robert Mugabe, analysts said.
Opposition chief Morgan Tsvangirai's move was described by analysts as a potential moment of truth for Zimbabwe and the region.
The 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) may now face little choice but to take action against Mugabe, who has faced harsh criticism from rights groups and Western powers as violence intensified before the vote.
SADC countries, whose appointed mediator in the crisis is President Thabo Mbeki, have been divided by the Zimbabwe crisis and criticised over a failure to take action.
Traditionally loathe to criticise the 84-year-old former liberation hero, some countries in the region have begun speaking out, but a failure to find common ground has left them frozen by indecision.
"That is the most critical in the future of Zimbabwe: what SADC is going to do," said political analyst Dirk Kotze of the University of South Africa in Pretoria.
"The United Nations does not have a lot of bargaining power, the US and Britain even less. It is only SADC that is left with any type of leverage."
Analyst Chris Maroleng, of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, said the recent criticism of Mugabe by some regional leaders shows they may be poised to "take stronger action".
"I think that he has been diminished, particularly after the spate of violence we have seen recently," Maroleng said.
While some leaders have remained silent, growing violence has led to surprising rebukes from leaders such as Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been a Mugabe ally.
Dos Santos recently urged his counterpart to "cease all forms of intimidation and political violence", while leaders from Botswana, Tanzania and Zambia have also raised their tone.
Countries such as Mozambique and Namibia have remained faithful, however.
"What has been particularly embarrassing for the region is that their statements have been slow in coming and very weak . And Mugabe does not pay even the slightest attention to them," said Karin Alexander of the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa.
Unisa's Kotze said Tsvangirai's withdrawal, virtually handing victory to Mugabe, might see the country's political and economic crisis deepen - possibly steering Zimbabwe into the kind of violence seen in Kenya.
Kenya was plunged into a deadly political crisis following December elections that was only resolved with the formation of a national unity government.
"This withdrawal was not by choice. Tsvangirai was almost forced to do this. What it amounts to is that they want to create a constitutional crisis," Kotze said.
"It is very difficult to foresee a situation where this will simply be accepted, that there won't be any upheaval from MDC supporters."
Kotze said Zimbabwe was "exceptionally close" to a Kenya-style crisis.
"It is going to spill over and we are going to see violence from the MDC."
Political analyst Olmo von Meijenfeldt, of the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa, said that a negotiated settlement was the only way of resolving the political crisis.
Negotiations, however, would clearly be difficult, with Tsvangirai unlikely to accept a deal that did not grant him real power.
As for Mugabe, sharing power with a rival he has often branded as a stooge of former colonial power Britain would be a bitter pill to swallow. - Sapa-AFP