Last September, when the agreement to form a power-sharing Government was signed, senior MDC figures made an informal decision never to accept an official Mercedes.
But it has now emerged that all but one of the 20 new ministers, including Morgan Tsvangirai and his two deputy prime ministers, is now making use of a $50,000 E280 model.
Eric Matinenga, a prominent human rights advocate and now Constitutional Affairs Minister, said he was “embarrassed” at his official Mercedes.
“It is a condition of plenty amidst deprivation,” he said. “But the reality on the ground is there there is no other. You cannot get an alternative — they become a convenient evil.”
Another minister who asked not to be named was surprised with the alacrity with which they were offered their limousines. “There was so much pressure on me to go and get it. I argued with them for a long time,” he said.
“Why were they so keen to give me a fancy car that I didn’t want? It really looked like they wanted to tar us with their own dirty brush.”
David Coltart, the new Education Minister, told The Times that he had not been in his office for 30 minutes on his first day in the job when a transport officer burst in and told him to hurry down to the government vehicle pool to collect his new Mercedes Benz.
“He said if didn’t come down now, someone else would get it,” he said.
“I had just come into a building with no running water and I was being offered a Mercedes Benz. It was astonishing.”
It was much the same for the rest of the 20 cabinet ministers of the two MDC factions on their first day at work — each told they now had a luxurious, three-litre official Mercedes E280 available to them
Mr Coltart, from the splinter faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was alone in declining the use of the car.
The Mercedes Benz has long been the symbol of sleaze and rapacity among Zimbabwe’s ruling elite under President Mugabe, who proclaims his supremacy with a $500,000 bombproof model S600L. As with the parasitic waBenzi class in most of Africa, they bled the country’s treasury to be able to roar down potholed roads and past ordinary people deprived of food, homes, medicine and education.
“The thing about driving a Merc is that it is not just a different car — it is a different planet. How can you be in touch with the people in a Mercedes?” once senior MDC official, now a minister, asked at the time.
Now the MDC has a dilemma, faced with being tainted as just more of the same waBenzi clique. Some officials claim it is a deliberate tactic by Mr Mugabe’s bureaucrats to offload spare Mercedes limousines on to MDC ministers and slowly “break the mould” of the factions’ image of incorruptibility.
According to Tendai Biti, the MDC Finance Minister, the cars were bought by the Central Bank a year ago but never distributed — “I have not bought any cars for anyone,” he said. “We either had to leave them to rot or sell them, and get half their value. It was cheaper to keep them. It was a matter of practicality.”
Of the Mercedes allocated to him, he said, “I don’t like it. Half the time I use a truck.”
There are other reasons to keep the cars: the state will only provide fuel, maintenance and official registration to the Mercs and not to ministers’ private cars. And with an official salary of $100 a month — the same as all ranks in the civil service — and a housing allowance paid in worthless Zimbabwean dollars, such costs are considerable.
Mr Coltart, who uses a Nissan Pathfinder 4X4, which he claims is half the price and will get him to schools on appalling rural roads, said: “I made a pact in 2006 never to be seen in one."