HARARE — Nelson Chamisa catches his breath as he flops onto a couch at the end of another long day in Zimbabwe’s new government. Chamisa, a Movement for Democratic Change leader who was recently made Minister of Information, is blunt about the daunting challenge of trying to jump start this ravaged country.
“We are starting from a zero-sum situation in the economy,” he said.
A year after the elections that threw Zimbabwe into an extended period of chaos and violence, the MDC has staked its future — and that of Zimbabwe — on a coalition with its former persecutors, President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party. And the pressure is on the MDC to succeed.
“We have 100 days — that is the window of opportunity, the window of credibility,” said Chamisa, who at 31 is the youngest member of the cabinet, and a man whose only administrative experience is with a national students’ union. “We either squander that good will, or use it and collect ourselves and fly. If we fail to take off, that is disastrous, not only for this government but also for the country.”
It’s a message voiced by virtually all MDC ministers, who seem to be using it as a pressure tactic aimed at skeptical international donors: “Support us or we self-destruct.”
The MDC is emphasizing “quick wins” as it tries to gain the confidence of both Zimbabweans and the international community, no easy task in a bankrupt country where almost three quarters of the population is on international food aid and unemployment stands at 94 percent.
One quick victory is money. Since the coalition took power in February, hospitals and schools have reopened and civil servants have been lured back to work with monthly salaries of $100. The new minister of finance, the MDC's Tendai Biti, switched from the worthless Zimbabwean currency to the U.S. dollar.
And after years of astronomical inflation, prices are falling. The price of goods in U.S. dollars fell by 2 percent in January and 3 percent in February, according to Zimbabwe’s Central Statistical Office. While supermarket shelves were mostly bare for the past year, a growing selection of goods is available.
Zimbabwe's cholera epidemic — which has killed more than 4,000 people — has peaked and new victims find it easier to get medical treatment.
Zimbabweans, seeing these small improvements to their daily lives, are hopeful but anxious. “We don’t know our future. Things have started improving but I am nervous it will go back to the way it was,” said Mecious Ganda, 33, an electrician who lives in Mufakose township near Harare.
Western donors, meanwhile, are agonizing over the dilemma of how to back the government without giving too much support to Mugabe. The U.S., Britain and the EU are giving humanitarian aid, to help avoid widespread hunger and disease, but they are withholding developmental aid until they see more proof that Mugabe is reforming his ways. But this policy leaves them unable to help in crucial areas. For example, schools are not considered a humanitarian need, but the educational system in Zimbabwe could collapse if teachers are not paid.
“Are we going to sacrifice an entire generation?” pondered a high-ranking Western diplomat in Harare.
Most international donors have been wary of financially backing a government in which Zanu-PF still controls the military and the national intelligence agency.
"The question we are asking on a daily or even hourly basis is, ‘are we dealing with an MDC government or are we dealing with a Zanu government?' " said the Western diplomat.
Major sticking points for the international community include a new wave of invasions of white-owned commercial farms since the coalition government took power, and the continuing detention of political prisoners, who are kept in the horrifying conditions of Zimbabwe's jails.
Alec Muchadehama, a human rights lawyer, is doubtful about the new government and says that the continuing detentions is a show of force by Zanu-PF. “They’re simply saying, ‘don’t forget we’re in control, look at what we’re doing,’” Muchadehama said.
“Zanu will try to ignore the MDC and do what it wants. They’ll continue to do it, as if nothing has happened, to show that they’re in control. That’s where the MDC has a problem.”
According to South Africa’s Business Day newspaper, the minutes of a recent MDC meeting warn that Zanu-PF hardliners are trying to “derail” the inclusive government. The minutes predict instability in the next three months as the military and Zanu could retaliate for being “weaned off the gravy train.”
“They are trying to push us back into the sea, to kick us off this beachhead,” said a senior MDC official close to Tsvangirai who spoke only on condition of anonymity. “No matter what happens, we are not going to withdraw from the deal. We are going to stay inside to fight back.”
With the success of this government hinging on its finances, the MDC was given a hint of possible support last month when the IMF announced it might give aid to Zimbabwe if the country meets key conditions including clearing its debts. Help may come faster from Zimbabwe’s neighbors: the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is meeting this week to consider Tsvangirai’s request for $2 billion in loans and aid.
However, the U.S. ambassador to Harare, James McGee, has said that his country is not planning to lift sanctions any time soon, until there are “clear signs of change” towards the rebuilding of democracy, human rights and rule of law.
Meanwhile, teachers and other state workers are threatening to go on strike over their low wages. The new finance minister, Tendai Biti, has said that the government must meet monthly expenditures of about $100 million but can only raise $20 million a month.
Sources say that international donors are considering a form of “enhanced humanitarian aid,” which would include funding to help the new government meet its payroll for the next four to six months, until the country can stand on its own feet.
An Harare-based independent economist, John Robertson, said: “I think they appreciate that if they do not turn on the taps soon, it will cost them more later.”