It was difficult to watch the power-sharing deal signing ceremony between Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the ruling party ZANU-PF on 15 September.
The deal for a "dual cabinet" will see, if the agreement holds, an almost equal split of ministerial posts between the two parties, with the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister.
Despite bludgeoning and stealing his way to election victory Robert Mugabe keeps many of his powers and ZANU-PF, in all probability, will maintain control of the army.
This is extraordinary. ZANU-PF was humiliated in the March presidential and parliamentary elections. A degree of openness allowed the opposition to campaign, so even when the doctored results were finally released in April the government had been clearly beaten.
The months between the March elections and the June presidential run-off were some of the most oppressive and bloody in Zimbabwe's recent history. Tafadzwa Choto, an activist in the capital, Harare, explained, "These elections were by far the most violent since independence." The regime was fighting for power, the MDC struggling to survive the violence.
But for a moment, after the polls closed at the end of March, there seemed another possibility. The regime was paralysed, as it realised that it had lost the election. Divisions tore through ZANU-PF as Zimbabweans found a renewed confidence from the election victory. The message was clear: the regime was fallible and could fall. Clever Bere, president of the student union, ZINASU, describes the possibilities that emerged: "There was a sense of total confusion and disarray in the government. Our ranks in the MDC were swelling. There was excitement and a readiness to act among students and in the townships. That is when we should have confronted the regime."
The MDC leadership did not take this route. Within days the regime regained its balance and the pace of repression around the country quickened.
Even if the power-sharing agreement is hard for some MDC supporters and activists to swallow, it has been seen as the only way to break the economic impasse. Zimbabwe's economic crisis is staggering. Inflation is now above 50 million percent, while unemployment is 80 percent. The World Food Programme says that the food crisis threatens 5 million Zimbabweans in the coming months.
Support for the deal has to be seen in this context. Though determined to hold onto power, ZANU-PF needed an agreement with the opposition. The regime, unable to access foreign investments and loans, was cornered. The MDC was also trapped, in part by its own inability to dislodge the regime by mass action. The opposition, battered by almost a decade of repression and abuse, saw the deal as the only way forward.
Does the deal offer Zimbabwe a way out of the crisis? The much-ridiculed facilitator of the talks between the MDC and ZANU-PF was the then South African president, Thabo Mbeki. After the deal was signed he trumpeted that it was a "victory for African diplomacy".
This sense of the deal as an "African solution" is the key to South African intervention. Mbeki was anxious that a Western-negotiated settlement would see Western powers and firms reassert themselves in Zimbabwe. Unsurprisingly the deal was greeted with jubilation by Business Unity South Africa, a coalition of South African business interests, who stated that members with businesses in Zimbabwe stood ready to work with and support all parties.
The agreement is also likely to slowly thaw Zimbabwe's relationship with the major international financial institutions. Suspended from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2003, the organisation now says it will reopen negotiations with the country. We should be under no illusions. It was the debts and policies promoted by the IMF and World Bank in the 1990s - and supported by the regime in Harare - that led to Zimbabwe's economic collapse.
The likely outcome is a temporary easing of the economic crisis as credit lines open up again and shortages in food and petrol abate. The agreement will give activists a space, denied for years, for democratic politics.
New challenges will immediately present themselves. Commenting days after the deal, a Harare-based trade unionist explained, "This is space that we have to use for the struggles ahead - the struggles against the privatisation of our parastatals [state companies] and auctions of our national resources... against repayment of illegitimate foreign debt. It is a new phase of struggle... Now is not the time to be drunk with illusions."
Leo Zeilig is the author of the recently published Patrice Lumamba - Africa's Lost Leader