Zimbabwe rivals first cabinet meet

Harare – President Robert Mugabe and his arch rival Morgan Tsvangirai sat at Zimbabwe's cabinet table for the first time on Tuesday as ministers of the country's new unity government held their inaugural meeting.

The historic cabinet session, which took place at the Munhumutapa government headquarters in downtown Harare, lasted around two hours although there was no immediate word on its outcome.

"The cabinet meeting is over. President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai attended," Tsvangirai’s spokesperson James Maridadi told AFP, without giving further details.

However the session came as Tsvangirai’s choice to become deputy agriculture minister, Roy Bennett, was brought before court to face charges the prime minister’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party insists are trumped-up.

Heightened mistrust

Bennett, a white farmer and former lawmaker, was arrested last Friday shortly before his MDC colleagues were sworn in to serve in the new cabinet in a move that served to heighten the mistrust between the two factions.

The 52-year-old, whose farm was expropriated by the state as part of Mugabe’s controversial land reform programme, was initially charged with treason although the charge was later changed to attempting to commit terrorism, banditry and sabotage, and conspiring to acquire arms.

However Bennett’s lawyer said that his client had now been slapped with fresh charges which were due to be levelled by magistrates in the city of Mutare.

The MDC’s secretary general and newly appointed finance minister Tendai Biti – who also has treason charges hanging over his head – hinted on Monday that the party would take unspecified "action" if Bennett was not released.

New ministers assumed their duties on Monday with some of them holding meetings with Tsvangirai and his deputies, state-run media said.

Tsvangirai also met leaders and representatives of teachers’ unions, The Herald newspaper reported.

Most teachers in public schools have been on strike over pay since last year and Tsvangirai has promised to pay them and other key professionals and soldiers in foreign currency from the end of this month.

On its knees

Zimbabwe, once seen as a post-colonial success story, has been brought to its knees by the collapse of its economy since the turn of the decade and the inflation rate is now the highest in the world.

The economic crisis has also led to the collapse of the country’s health infrastructure and more than 3 000 people have been killed by a cholera outbreak in recent weeks.

The former British colony has been ruled by Mugabe since independence in 1980 who was beaten into second place by Tsvangirai in a first-round presidential election in March last year.

Tsvangirai subsequently pulled out of the run-off after scores of his supporters were killed and only agreed to enter the unity government after months of wrangling over the division of powers.

– AFP