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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Public rage over perks for new Zimbabwe ministers

HARARE, April 4,2009 | Guardian

Zimbabwe's new unity government has sparked public outcry by accepting a succession of perks including a "retreat" to a luxury resort at Victoria Falls this weekend and a fleet of US$50,000 (RM185,000) Mercedes vehicles for ministers while the vast majority struggles to afford basic commodities.

The perception of officials feathering their nests is particularly awkward for former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his allies in the unity government, who spent years championing the lot of ordinary Zimbabweans during the economic collapse presided over by Robert Mugabe. It is also likely to raise questions about the government's spending priorities, coming just days after it issued an appeal for billions of dollars.

Officially billed as a brainstorming session on how to take the country forward, the weekend retreat will take place at a tourist resort famed for its five-star safari lodges and the spectacular "Mosi-I-Tunya" waterfalls, the "smoke that thunders" in the local Shona language. Many Zimbabweans see the trip as another junket for the politically privileged.

"It's just spitting in peoples' faces at a time when the cities are suffering and much of the countryside is starving," said Dumisani Moyo, 39, an office worker in the capital Harare.

The government has been quoted as saying the retreat will promote tourism, particularly as most foreign visitors have forsaken Zimbabwe for Zambia's side of the falls. But criticism came from the most unlikely of sources: the slavishly pro-president Mugabe state-owned Herald daily newspaper. In a rare show of dissent its political editor Mabasa Sasa wrote a column earlier this week asking why politicians needed to spend "untold sums" of precious foreign exchange to wine, dine and talk on the peoples' behalf when they could stay in the capital Harare.

Satirising the bon viveur politicians' new taste for luxury in a rebuke all the more stinging for its unexpectedness, Sasa said: "It would be interesting to find out how high the bar tab will be considering the penchant for Chivas Regal and other exotically named whiskies and cognacs that people acquire when someone starts addressing them as Shefu [chief]".

Barely seven weeks ago many of the ministers expected to attend were in opposition fighting for their political lives or facing the truncheons of President Robert Mugabe's security services.

But the excursion is the culmination of a series of perks. These include the new government's self-award of one Mercedes-Benz E-class for every minister at a time when most Zimbabweans are struggling to afford basic commodities such as cooking oil and the national maize staple mealie-meal.

Only one politician, MDC MP and Minister for Education David Coltart, refused the Benz. He said a Mercedes was not practical for negotiating the potholed roads of rural constituencies.

Zimbabwe's economic and financial needs meanwhile remain critical. The regional Southern African Development Community announced this week that it would assist Zimbabwe in trying to raise up to US$8.3 billion to rebuild its shattered economy.

The reforming MDC Finance Minister Tendai Biti said the country urgently needed US$2 billion in aid inflows within the next two weeks to meet its debt obligations and pay civil servants.

Important, if modest, economic and political reforms have already taken place under the combined auspices of Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and their one-time enemies the Movement for Democratic change. But there are also deep misgivings.

Christopher Goche, 35, a taxi driver and MDC supporter, said he was worried that politicians were "feathering their nests when there is a long way to go".

Despite the national outpouring of sympathy for Prime Minister Tsvangirai, whose wife died in a car accident last month, there are fears that the former trade unionist is becoming co-opted by Mugabe much like one-time opposition leader Joshua Nkomo was in the 1980s.

Nkomo, once the president's most popular rival, was incorporated into a Mugabe-led government under Zimbabwe's "unity accord" in 1987.

"For the moment things are stable but one can't mistake growing disenchantment with the new unity government barely a month after its inception ... Tsvangirai is operating under a shadow of Nkomo," said Dr Ibbo Mandaza, a former Zanu-PF politician and Harare-based analyst.

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