Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe and, at the age of 83, one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, could finally be on the way out.

Events of the last two weeks seem to have brought most of Zimbabwe’s political class, as well as its powerful neighbor, South Africa, to a realisation that Mugabe’s departure needs to be engineered sooner rather than later.

A BBC report on Saturday said that “Leading members of the ruling Zanu-PF party and the opposition are reportedly mapping out an end to the Mugabe era.”

The following day the Sunday Times confirmed that Mugabe’s vice-president, Joyce Mujuru, wife of Zimbabwe’s powerful former army chief, is attempting to reach an understanding with the opposition.

Mugabe’s recent antics have rightly attracted world condemnation. But in a perverse sort of way, Mugabe represents real progress in western attitudes towards Africa.

By the standards of past dictatorships, Mugabe’s regime has a very mild record. Elections have been held, and until the last few years seem to have been reasonably fair.

Former white minority leader Ian Smith remained in the country for long years of undisturbed retirement. There has been little to compare with the atrocities committed by previous African rulers such as Idi Amin, Jean-Bedel Bokassa or Macias Nguema.

Of course we should be outraged at the beating of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. But we should also remember that many countries have no such position as opposition leader in the first place: anyone who might fill the role is in exile or in prison.

It’s good to see western opinion mobilised against Mugabe. But as usual our indignation is selective, and it’s hard to avoid the thought that part of our indignation is due to the continued presence of a white minority in Zimbabwe. Would there be so much western attention if Mugabe’s victims were all black and didn’t speak English?

Peter Tatchell in The Independent (extracted in today’s Australian) lamented the “selective approach to human rights [of] sections of the Left, with their lack of protests against the murderous regimes in Iran, Zimbabwe and Sudan.”

But the truth is that human rights overseas only become a popular concern when we feel we have some stake in them.

The left’s protests against oppression in South Africa, Chile, El Salvador, and so on were not about those countries in the abstract; they were about the (alleged) actions of western governments supporting them.

It’s not about “them”, it’s about “us” – and people sufficiently like us to arouse our sympathy.