Biti vows to sideline Gono

Harare/Johannesburg – Zimbabwe's new finance minister, Tendai Biti, has vowed to save the virtually worthless Zimbabwe dollar and to sideline controversial central banker, Gideon Gono, South Africa's Sunday Times newspaper reported.

Biti, who was sworn in as one of the former opposition’s ministers Friday by President Robert Mugabe, told the Times: "Our money can only be saved by floating the Zimbabwe dollar so that it finds its natural value," he said

"’Randizing’ the economy is not the solution," he said in response to speculation that the government, which unites Mugabe’s Zanu-PF with Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) might ditch its currency in favour of the South African rand.

Most transactions in Zimbabwe already take place in US dollars, rands or the Botswanan pula, as hyperinflation of at least 231 million per cent, renders the trillion-dollar-denominated local currency virtually useless.

The concept of "randization" was floated by South African President Kgalema Motlanthe in an interview last week, when he said: "It may be practical for them (Zimbabwe) to enter into an arrangement with our Reserve Bank here and adopt the rand as their currency."

The idea had provoked alarm among many South Africans, who feared their government might be required to stump up the rands to cover the new government’s spending, including Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s promise to pay civil servants in hard currency.

Restoring some purchasing power to the Zimbabwe dollar is just one of the daunting tasks facing Biti, the MDC’s outspoken secretary general. Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate is estimated at 94 per cent and production in most sectors has ground to a halt for lack of cash.

"The job is the worst in the world," he admitted, while assuring he would "prevail."

The 42-year-old lawyer also appeared to be gearing up to do battle with Mugabe’s controversial central banker, Gideon Gono, whose penchant for printing money to cover budget shortfalls is seen as driving the currency into the doldrums.

"We will make sure that the role of the (Reserve Bank) becomes minimal," Biti said.

Zimbabwe’s unity government got off to a rocky start Friday, when the MDC’s choice for deputy agriculture minister, well-known former (white) farmer Roy Bennett, was arrested as his cabinet colleagues were being sworn in.

Bennett was arrested at an airport outside Harare in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate Mugabe in 2006. His lawyer said Friday that police were accusing him of treason, a crime that carries the death penalty. Formal charges were expected to be laid on Monday.

Bennett, who fled the country to South Africa in 2006, denies the charges, which the MDC see as an attempt by hardliners within Mugabe’s party to scupper the new government.

His arrest and the continued detention of dozens of other MDC members and human rights activist, "does not give confidence to the inclusive government," the MDC said Saturday.