Zimbabwe's new prime minister says humanitarian crisis is a top priority

By Oxfam
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Zimbabweans show their support for their new prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai.

On my way to work for the first time since I'd been in Zimbabwe, I passed two women busy sweeping litter and leaves from a street corner. It seemed a minor miracle, given that most basic civic services in Zimbabwe had broken down. There had been no refuse collection for months; and the water and sewerage system in many areas of the country had stopped functioning altogether.

On this day, it seemed highly symbolic: a clean sweep. It was a day which many Zimbabweans were praying would bring them change, after months of political deadlock, an ever-worsening economy, and a humanitarian crisis as the country battled its worst-ever cholera epidemic and serious food shortages.

It was the day Morgan Tsvangirai, the country's main opposition leader, was to take office as the country's prime minister in a new unity government.

Tsvangirai won the first round of last year's presidential elections by a small margin. But he withdrew from the run-off, citing violence against his supporters. In September, though, he agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe. However the deal had been stalled for months amid political disagreements.

While there are skeptics who say the new political arrangement is a sell-out and unlikely to achieve much, many Zimbabweans beg to differ. They view the new political arrangement with optimistic caution. Many told me things couldn't get any worse, and that the formation of a new unity government gave them cause to hope again. They believed it could mark the start of change in their country, which has seen thousands killed from cholera—a curable and preventable disease—and where up to seven million people, more than half the population, are dependent on food aid.

Later in the day, after being officially sworn into office, Zimbabwe's new prime minister addressed thousands of supporters at a packed showground in Harare.

Some attending told me they'd sold household goods—a TV set; an iron; some clothing—to get enough petrol to come to Harare to listen to Tsvangirai address the crowd as the country's new prime minister.

He promised to end political violence and Zimbabwe's culture of impunity; to work for a society where people were no longer living in fear of reprisals or repression for their views. He said Zimbabwe would not be a pseudo democracy, but a functioning democracy, where the rule of law could be re-established.

A second top priority of the new government, he said, was to tackle the humanitarian crisis, to stem the cholera epidemic which has gripped the country, and to ensure that those who needed food got help—regardless of their political or tribal affiliations.

He also promised to appoint a senior cabinet member to coordinate humanitarian efforts; to remove tax duties for humanitarian food aid, and to organize a food summit to try to ensure that in the future, Zimbabweans would not go hungry again.

And he vowed to stabilize the country's economy—characterized by crippling hyperinflation; to get children back to school, hospitals to reopen, and civil servants to return to work.

All music to the ears of the crowd and—possibly good news for international governments that have said they will carefully monitor change in Zimbabwe before making serious commitments of financial help.

The crowds in the stadium cheered, danced and waved flags. Even a reporter from a government-controlled newspaper seemed happy.

"We used to be dead," he said. "Now we are alive. This is the start of change."

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