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Associated Press/Photo by Markus Schreiber

Primed minister

Zimbabwe | Amid transition and tragedy, Morgan Tsvangirai gains momentum in Zimbabwe

Issue: "Geo-gizmos," April 25, 2009

Morgan Tsvangirai spent his 57th birthday at his wife's funeral. The newly installed prime minister of Zimbabwe was still nursing head injuries from the car crash that killed his wife of 31 years as he sat near her flower-draped coffin with the couple's six children in Harare Methodist Church on March 10. The stoic prime minister told supporters: "We all know that we shall die, but let's celebrate the life of Susan because we have gone through trials and tribulations together."

For a bereaved Tsvangirai-and a disintegrating Zimbabwe-the trials and tribulations are far from over. After decades of brutal rule by President Robert Mugabe, the country is in shambles: over 90 percent unemployment, a collapsed health-care system, rampant disease, widespread hunger, and a currency so worthless Zimbabweans used it for confetti at Tsvangirai's swearing-in ceremony in February.

That leaves little time for Tsvangirai to grieve his wife's death. Instead, the prime minister faces the challenge of wresting his own country from death while a ruthless dictator remains in power.

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Zimbabweans showed guarded optimism when Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), signed a power sharing agreement with Mugabe last fall. The agreement came nearly eight months after Tsvangirai won presidential elections but failed to gain enough votes to avoid a runoff with Mugabe. Citing threats and intimidation by Mugabe's ruling party, Tsvangirai withdrew from the race.

But pressure mounted for Mugabe to share power with the popular Tsvangirai, and the president swore in the opposition leader as prime minister in February. The world watched to see what Tsvangirai would do and how Mugabe would respond.

The prime minister didn't waste time: Late last month, Tsvangirai announced anyone invading Zimbabwean farms would be arrested and prosecuted. The announcement may sound unremarkable to Western ears, but it represents a direct challenge to Mugabe's long-standing policy of land grabbing-a policy experts say drove the country's precipitous economic collapse over the last decade.

Mugabe began seizing land from white farmers in 2000 and handing the profitable farms to poor, black Zimbabweans (and members of his own party). The president said the practice would promote equality and alleviate poverty, but it's done just the opposite: Inexperienced citizens allowed the land to languish, destroying the agricultural sector that drove an export-based economy and depleting the nation's food supply.

MDC leaders say the ruling party has seized land from as many as 4,000 white farmers over the last eight years, and Tsvangirai condemned reports of more land seizures since his swearing in. The prime minister knows this is key to restoring relations with the outside world: The United States and Europe maintain targeted sanctions against Mugabe, citing the land-grabbing policy alongside a long list of other injustices. (The United States and other nations do provide emergency and food aid.)

The country's new unity government is desperate for outside help to rebuild its destroyed economy, but the International Monetary Fund said it wouldn't offer financial assistance to Zimbabwe until the country clears existing debt and establishes sound economic practices. And Mugabe says he won't back down from his land-grabbing policy, perhaps setting up a showdown with Tsvangirai.

Meanwhile, the country's financial system remains abysmal: The inflation rate stands at an incomprehensible 231 million percent, the highest in the world. That's actually down from 13.2 billion percent in December. The drop came after the government abandoned the worthless Zimbabwean currency in January, easing hyperinflation and lowering the prices of some goods. The country now uses the U.S. dollar and the South African rand.

While that change has helped some Zimbabweans, most are left stranded: They don't have jobs, and the handful of employers that do exist often have trouble getting American dollars to pay workers.

David Coltart knows that dilemma well. The veteran politician in Tsvangirai's party and prominent human-rights lawyer is also the new minister of education. His first task in office is daunting: Convince teachers to come back to work. Teachers worked less than 30 days on average last year, citing lack of pay and poor working conditions. The educators went on strike five months ago when the government stopped paying them altogether.

Coltart offered an olive branch: $100 a month, and a promise of more as the economy improves. Most teachers returned but also said they'll strike again in May if Coltart doesn't provide better salaries. (The leading teachers union said hyperinflation makes the $100 salaries worth little in the market.) Coltart was frank in a press conference last month: "Right now I cannot promise anything in terms of salaries."

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