For the first time since 1998 Morgan Tsvangirai, met Robert Mugabe and shook hands in a historic meeting to sign an agreement to pave the way for the talks.
South Africa’s leader Thabo Mbeki was close by together with scores of politicians and journalists.
Three months after the voting and violence began, Mugabe and his opposition rival agreed to hold talks about sharing power to bring an end to Zimbabwe’s deadly political crisis.
All the parties expressed commitment to dialogue, saying it was the only way forward as President Mugabe and Tsvangirai met for the first time in a decade.
But Zimbabweans worn down by the daily grind of finding food in a country with the world’s worst inflation had little energy to celebrate on Monday.
Instead, they lined up outside banks for Zimbabwe’s new $100bn note – enough to buy two loaves of bread.
Monday’s handshake to discuss forging an “inclusive” government was a victory for opposition leader Tsvangirai who beamed as he signed the deal nearly three months after winning the first round of the presidential vote.
For him, the agreement contained a key opposition demand: an end to the political violence that had killed dozens, injured thousands and sent tens of thousands fleeing from their homes.
Talks would begin on Thursday in Pretoria, the South African capital, but would not include either leader, an official from Tsvangirai’s party said on condition of anonymity.
Mugabe, who had ruled Zimbabwe for all 28 years since independence and just last month declared election victory, appeared nervous at the ceremony.
Head bent and looking beaten as he stood between two jubilant opposition leaders, Mugabe never once looked at Tsvangirai during the hour-long ceremony. Afterward, he shook hands with everyone except his rival.
Asked about it at a news conference later, he posed for journalists, giving Tsvangirai a limp handshake.
Today, Zimbabwe – once a supplier of food to the region – was an economic disaster zone with an official inflation rate of 2.2 million percent and 80% unemployment.