The momentum is moving in the MDC’s favour yet its foreign friends remain cautious

Africa Confidentialzim

 After a three-week tour through Western capitals and having raised some US$150 million for his fragile government, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai now knows that diplomats and business people in the West are as ambivalent as their African counterparts about the prospects for Zimbabwe in the short term. The difference is that African governments have already ‘taken the risk’, as Tsvangirai puts it. The stakes are much higher for Zimbabwe’s neighbours if things fall apart again.

 The Nigerian-based Afreximbank has extended some $250 mn. in credit lines to Zimbabwean state-owned and private companies; the regional Preferential Trade Area is extending another $150 mn.; Botswana and South Africa are offering nearly $200 mn. Several African bankers who attended the Zimbabwe roadshows in Cape Town on 10-12 June told Africa Confidential they would open negotiations, having been convinced to sign up by Finance Minister Tendai Biti, Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara and Harare’s omnipresent financial baron, Nigel Chanakira. Tsvangirai had the tougher mission of persuading Western countries wedded to the view that any government allowing Robert Mugabe to stay on as President was almost doomed to repeat the patronage, corruption and violence of the past or else would simply disintegrate under the weight of its own contradictions.

 Inside Zimbabwe, the power-sharing project looks less tenuous. That is perhaps because so many Zimbabweans – for either the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) or the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) – desperately want it to work, to bolster the economy and to end the fearful political violence. The momentum has been on their side for the last four months: the longer the power-sharing lasts, the more normal an MDC prime minister and finance minister becomes; and the more support they can garner from within and without, the more stable the transition will become.

 Tsvangirai knows the differing constituencies to which he must appeal and is increasingly adept at hitting the target. He opened his address to Britain‘s Royal Institute of International Affairs with a ‘special tribute to the British people for their unwavering support for the ordinary people of Zimbabwe’, followed by a diplomatic reference to the colonial land grab ‘notwithstanding our historical ties arising from our past relationship.’ The thrust of his argument, rehearsed in Berlin, Brussels, London, Paris, Washington and elsewhere, is that there are strong parallels between Zimbabwe’s transition from rule by ZANU-PF to a social democratic system and South Africa‘s transition from apartheid rule to an open democracy with a liberal constitution.

 Freely admitting that he is ‘not a Mandela‘, Tsvangirai says the important point is for Zimbabwe to avoid the hyper-violence of South Africa’s transition, which killed some 20,000 people because extremists in the old order thought they could derail the process. Having dropped the electorally suicidal association with white farmers, Tsvangirai now neatly triangulates between general resentment about gross colonial inequities in land distribution, concern about the rule of law and property rights and an almost implicit acceptance that most of ZANU-PF’s land resettlement will not be reversed, although compensation schemes and the land audit may remedy some of the worst excesses on all sides.

 Tsvangirai has to rely heavily on his Finance Minister Biti and Economic Planning Minister Elton Mangoma (see Who’s Who). Under their tutelage, the economy has changed from the most bureaucratic, cumbersome system of regulation – covering everything from foreign exchange, capital controls, payment of corporate taxes and import tariffs – to one of the least regulated economies in the developing world.

 In reality, the job was half done by the collapse of most of the formal economy: regulations were openly flouted, especially by greedy politicians who used the system for personal enrichment and political patronage. For most Zimbabweans in the cash economy, the suspension of the Zimbabwe dollar and the adoption of the US dollar and South African rand as legitimate currency were an acceptance of reality. It has prompted huge economic and political change.

 Almost instantly, dollarisation destroyed ZANU-PF’s patronage base and the power of Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono, who can no longer disburse foreign exchange to political favourites or indeed order the prosecution of political foes for currency violations. Most of Gono’s strength is now negative, the power to make the economy go wrong. Judging by his broad smile when Africa Confidential saw him in Biti’s office last week, there may be some truth in the report that Mugabe refuses to allow Gono to resign, for fear of giving in to the MDC.

 The question haunting Zimbabwe’s transition is whether it is reversible. Of course the MDC line on Tsvangirai’s sojourn was that the ‘commitment to a new Zimbabwe’ was overwhelming. This time, Tsvangirai’s enthusiasm captures the sense of change in Zimbabwe: the reopening of schools, clinics and hospitals together with a more open (but still fractious) political climate.

 This year’s sweeping economic changes make impossible a return to the status quo ante. The main beneficiaries from failure would be – as in South Africa’s transition – a small band of securocrats who may face prosecution for serial human rights abuses. Tackling that issue amid the wider calls for political reform is becoming a pressing issue for those determined to shore up the new order.