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."
A few blocks away, up a narrow staircase and inside the small textiles factory he runs, C.K. Zunze concurred. He said he has had to pare his staff by half in recent years as sales dropped, but he expects an uptick as soon as March.
"This is better than new elections," the small, bespectacled man said. Elections might generate fear among the people, he said, and deliver a landslide for Mugabe.
He was referring to last year's polls, which initially sparked jubilation among opposition supporters. It looked as though Tsvangirai might defeat Mugabe. Then a runoff was called, followed by a bloody state crackdown, and Tsvangirai pulled out. Optimism rose again in September when Tsvangirai and Mugabe signed a power-sharing deal. Then their parties negotiated over the details for five months, and Zimbabwe's economic and humanitarian crisis worsened.
In those months, said Amon Siveregi, 27, a young doctor interning at Harare's main government hospital, physicians and nurses have stopped collecting their monthly salaries; in December, his was worth 5 U.S. cents. Those who go to work practice what he called bush medicine, with broken heart monitors and expired anesthetics. They are counting on Tsvangirai's promise of pay in foreign currency -- though they worry that hospital administrators aligned with Mugabe's party might pocket it, he said.
"A lot of people believe Tsvangirai," said Siveregi, who chairs a health workers' union and said he aspires to become Zimbabwe's third neurosurgeon. "It seems he is the only hope."
Siveregi said he wants to see the hospital revive plans to offer liver transplants. He would also not mind being able to treat his girlfriend to a vacation at Victoria Falls or to dinner on Valentine's Day.
"She's a lawyer," said Siveregi, 27, sitting in the faded common room at the hospital's shuttered medical school. "Sometimes she's the one who's taking me out. In our culture, that's a bit embarrassing."
Much of Zimbabwe's revival will depend on keeping well-educated Zimbabweans and luring back the millions who have emigrated, people here agree. Tsvangirai said in the interview that those who left have a "duty" to help rebuild the nation. "Personally, I think this should inspire Zimbabweans to come back home," he said.
Sydney Shenje, 57, said he hopes his three children, who live in South Africa and Australia, will come back to take over the township butcher shop he owns. These days, it stocks just beer and pork -- beef is poor quality, and chickens are too expensive.
But he is not sure how soon change will come, pointing inside his shop to a man sitting on a Coca-Cola crate. Most of his customers think the new government represents a new dawn, Shenje said, but that man was a soldier during Zimbabwe's liberation struggle, a die-hard supporter of Mugabe's party who thinks it "should go on ruling this country and not change anything."
Those people and the generals who advise Mugabe despise Tsvangirai, he said. "How are they going to interpret their relationship with the prime minister?" Shenje asked. "The gap between them is so wide."
Shenje said that a power-sharing government was the best option but that it seems to him to be too large and too undefined.
"My hope is because Robert Mugabe is 85 now. I think he's going to retire in two years' time," Shenje said. "That's when we expect things will get better."
A short drive away, a pastor sat under the trees outside his church. Jim Musaaka, 57, said members of his congregation had prayed for Zimbabwe's political parties to reconcile. They are sure it has happened, he said.
He pointed to a large stack of gray bricks. Soon, he thinks, they will become the new sanctuary they were intended for, before money disappeared and stores ran out of construction supplies.
"We are expecting now that we should rebuild our country," Musaaka said. "So that we can be like other countries. So people can get employment. . . . Then, we start to build."