Zimbabwe's perilous revival must overcome an entrenched Robert Mugabe regime

HARARE, Zimbabwe – On his first day as education minister in an inclusive government so broke that most schools were closed and millions of children idle, David Coltart said he got a startling invitation.

"Come and get your brand-new white Mercedes!" an official told Mr. Coltart, a veteran opposition politician, as President Robert Mugabe peered down from a portrait on his office wall.

The offer of an E-class Mercedes to every minister in the month-old power-sharing government was vintage Mugabe, an effort to seduce his political enemies with the lavish perks he has long bestowed on loyalists.

Mr. Coltart said no, thanks.

Opposition members like Mr. Coltart who joined Mr. Mugabe in office last month have achieved some successes, like getting teachers back to work and winning the release of some political prisoners. 

But many of them warned in recent interviews that the progress would be short-lived if Western nations, meeting on Friday in Washington to discuss expanding assistance, do not extend billions of dollars in aid to rebuild Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s main donors of emergency medical and food aid — the United States, Britain and other European nations — face a painful question posed by those pleas for more help. How do the world’s wealthiest nations pump money into Zimbabwe’s collapsed economy without propping up Mr. Mugabe, feeding his patronage machine and extending his disastrous three decades in power?

Before fully re-engaging with Zimbabwe’s government, the donors have said they want to see the release of all political prisoners, a halt to seizures of white-owned farms and the restoration of a free press. But diplomats here say hard-liners in Mr. Mugabe’s old guard seem determined to sabotage efforts to end the nation’s pariah status, perhaps by denying Zimbabwe the infusion of Western aid that the public would credit to the newcomers, led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who heads the Movement for Democratic Change.

The most critical test for Mr. Tsvangirai is whether he can deliver on his inaugural promise to pay the civil service a living wage in foreign currency. This is particularly important regarding the policemen and soldiers who have enforced the repressive rule of Mr. Mugabe and his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, but whose pay in local currency is now worthless. Even diplomats who were most skeptical about Mr. Tsvangirai’s deal to govern with Mr. Mugabe, who is 85, now sense an opportunity to weaken "the old man," as he is called here.

"There’s a creeping sense that we are in an endgame, that there is a new dynamic here," said one Western diplomat who spoke anonymously according to diplomatic protocol. "Never before has the government been this prostrate. Never before has ZANU-PF been so weak or the opposition in office, if not in power."

The opposition politicians say that they, too, sense an opportunity to loosen Mr. Mugabe’s grip on the civil service, but that they fear the aid will come too late to let them seize it.

Mr. Coltart’s experience is a good example. Though he faces enormous hurdles, not least the fact that his ministry’s foul-smelling headquarters has no running water to flush toilets, he has coaxed most of the nation’s teachers back to work with little more than a paltry $100 monthly allowance and the promise of more. The sight of children in tattered uniforms walking to school has become another sign of encroaching normalcy — along with affordable loaves of bread and well-stocked grocery shelves — in a country ravaged by hunger, hyperinflation and cholera.

But the teachers unions have warned him that their members will soon stop working unless he can get them better salaries, akin to the hard currency allowances that the British, the United Nations and other donors are already paying to more than 20,000 doctors, nurses and other workers in Zimbabwe’s collapsed public health system.

"If we don’t get support for education in literally the next few weeks, there’s a very real danger the teachers will leave in their thousands as they did last year," Mr. Coltart said.

Teachers at the Fungisai primary school in Chitungwiza, a city south of Harare, the capital, say $100 a month does not come close to paying for the essentials: rent, clothing, food, school fees. Still, they seem hopeful.

"The government is broke, but it’s better to have someone promising something better," said Mercy Manza, 38, a third-grade teacher and mother of two. "Before, it was as if we didn’t exist. They just ignored us."

The hyperinflation got so bad last year that the teachers’ pay in Zimbabwe dollars was worthless. Many teachers immigrated to South Africa to work as maids or grape pickers. Mrs. Manza and Kudzayi Chivasa, a widowed, 44-year-old teacher, said they had sold off their clothes, plates and silverware in a desperate bid to raise cash to feed their families.

"I went for a week in January without food," Mrs. Chivasa said.

The teachers said their lives have gotten materially better this year. The Zimbabwe dollar has effectively died and all goods are now priced in United States dollars and South African rand. With the lifting of price controls and import restrictions, goods have flooded into the country and food staples cost less.

The Fungisai school, a complex of single-story red brick buildings, was empty for months last year. All its 52 teachers are now back, along with 2,200 neatly dressed children in royal blue uniforms. But the headmistress, Angela Katsuwa, doubts she can hold onto her staff unless they get a raise.

"I’m afraid they may go away," she said. "They’re grumbling because that $100 is not enough to take them to the end of the month."

The teachers are not the only ones challenged by poor pay. Every minister in the new government makes the same as a teacher — or a janitor, for that matter. In his 14th-floor office, with a sweeping view of Harare’s skyline, Mr. Coltart took his crumbled pay stub out of his wallet. His earnings: 4,224 worthless Zimbabwe dollars and the voucher for $100. Mr. Coltart is a prominent human rights lawyer from Bulawayo who describes himself as "completely self-funding at present."

Many of the new ministers, however, have struggled to get by financially in recent years, hobbled by politically inspired criminal charges in a country with 94 percent unemployment. Diplomats here worry that Mr. Mugabe will sense their vulnerability and exploit it with what one of them described as his usual strategy of "bait the hook." Many of the new ministers have accepted the Mercedes Benzes that Mr. Coltart refused.

"There’s a very real danger our members and ministers could be sucked into the patronage system," Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara said. He is now driving an E280 Mercedes, though as deputy prime minister he said he was entitled to one in the more expensive S-class. "Our members have to be vigilant and principled."

Despite some missteps, diplomats and local analysts say Movement for Democratic Change ministers, led by Mr. Tsvangirai and Mr. Mutambara, are standing up to Mr. Mugabe and demanding a say in how the country is governed.

Looming over them all is the old man. Mr. Coltart hasn’t quite figured out what to do with the portrait of Mr. Mugabe that hangs behind his desk.

"I’m thinking I’ll find a more appropriate place," he said, "where he’s not looking over my shoulder."