In Devastated Zimbabwe, New Prime Minister Revives Hope of a Better Day

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 16, 2009

HARARE, Zimbabwe, Feb. 15 -- Some sound like lofty dreams: a liver transplant at the fading government hospital. Most sound like simple wishes: Valentine's Day dinner at a restaurant. Paint for the peeling walls. Beef for the butcher shop.

In collapsing Zimbabwe, they sound like miracles. But many people here appear to expect the new prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, to deliver what three destructive decades under President Robert Mugabe have taken away.

By next year, "you'll be seeing clear, positive signals toward the better," said a jolly Justius Rushwaya, who does not anticipate re-creating the days when he vacationed in London, but simply supporting his family on his day job heading a microfinance institution, rather than on the chicken farm that scarcely pays the bills. "Then I can take my darling wife for dinner and coffee," he said.

During this country's slow slide from economic dynamo to economic disaster, Zimbabweans' optimism has ebbed and flowed with each election, negotiation and protest, sustaining a minimum level of hope that some observers say has kept the nation from civil war. Now, many Zimbabweans are dreaming again: Could the new unity government spark a turnaround?

"There's light at the end of the tunnel," Themba Singana, 29, said this week at a rally celebrating Tsvangirai's inauguration, which Singana said he was sure would boost sales at his boutique.

Even the cautious say the new administration, which begins work Monday, brings with it the most tangible promise of change in recent times. Tsvangirai, who won the first round of presidential elections last year but withdrew from a runoff following attacks on his supporters, is in government after years of leading the opposition. Unlike Mugabe, he might be able to secure donor funds that could revive Zimbabwe's cornfields, factories, hospitals and sewage services.

Tsvangirai has made little attempt to temper those hopes. He vowed this week that public workers would be paid by March in foreign currency, not the ruined Zimbabwe dollar, but provided no specifics. Baffled economists wonder where he will find funds estimated at upward of $40 million a month, and many civil activists and political analysts say they doubt that Mugabe loyalists in the security forces -- already accused of undermining the deal by arresting a top official in Tsvangirai's party Friday -- will let the prime minister accomplish anything.

"People have to be realistic with what can be done with the limited space of opportunities, with the limited resources available," Tsvangirai said in an interview Friday. "But there's nothing wrong with having high expectations. It sets the bar very high."

Rushwaya, for one, harbors no doubts that his life and Zimbabwe have embarked on a rebound, recalling the times when his agency readily issued loans to small businesses and he could buy new furniture every few years.

Hyperinflation, he said at his sunny downtown office, has rendered loan funds worthless, so now the agency mostly offers training in bookkeeping and other skills. And it has pushed the price of a can of paint to $40, he added, pointing to his peeling ceiling and walls.

But the economy has also led to Mugabe's downfall, he declared, pointing to a newspaper article about prison guards who could not afford fuel to transport inmates to court hearings. Mugabe must share power, Rushwaya said, because the country is on its knees, and eventually he will retire and his party will implode.

"I don't think he has any choice. I even foresee him giving more power to this man, yes, I do," Rushwaya said of Tsvangirai. "The greatest enemy for Mugabe is not Tsvangirai. It's the economy."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company