HARARE — Thousands of festive, cheering Zimbabweans converged on the center of Harare to celebrate the swearing in Wednesday of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister in a power-sharing government with President Robert Mugabe.
Tsvangirai, 56, was sworn into office by a stern-faced Mugabe, 84 in a ceremony that was broadcast on state television. Also attending were former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who brokered the agreement to form the transitional government of national unity and Swaziland's King Mswati III.
There were no smiles between the two leaders but the sight of Tsvangirai, a trade unionist who was once a mine foreman, taking office was enough to provoke celebrations on the streets of the capital. More than 15,000 swept through downtown Harare and filled Glamis Stadium to hear Tsvangirai speak a few hours later.
The Zimbabwean crowds gleefully seized on the new government as a sign of hope that the country’s deep economic and humanitarian crisis will be solved, although there is considerable enmity between Mugabe and Tsvangirai and doubts over how their two parties will work together.
Tsvangirai’s short speech at the swearing in ceremony was not broadcast by the state television, prompting many to say that Mugabe’s bureaucracy has already begun sabotaging the opposition leader’s efforts to bring change.
But the thousands who witnessed his first public speech at the stadium heard Tsvangirai vow to end state violence and human rights abuses. He also promised that civil servants would be paid in foreign currency, instead of Zimbabwe's now-worthless dollar.
Tsvangirai also has vowed to deal with Zimbabwe’s growing humanitarian crisis in which more than 3,500 people have died of cholera, thousands more suffer malnutrition and the collapsing economy has rendered millions destitute. He called on the international community to help Zimbabwe recover.
Tsvangirai pledged to end state violence and torture, starting by addressing the plight of several jailed members of his party who have been severely tortured, according to doctors’ affidavits. Last year, GlobalPost correspondent Jeffrey Barbee documented the injuries of Zimbabweans who claim they were tortured by police:
Tsvangirai, whose skull was fractured when he was beaten by police two years ago, has already called for police to release all MDC and other civic leaders. He said torture by police, army and other state agents must cease.
“As I stand before you, more than 30 innocent people continue to languish in jail months after being abducted and illegally detained,” said Tsvangirai, who said he would “make it a priority to ensure that the law is upheld and that the justice system deals with their cases in a fair, equitable and transparent manner in the shortest possible time frame.”
Tsvangirai said the new transitional government will “restore the people’s freedoms,” create a new constitution, reestablish the rule of law and promote the independent news media.
The swearing ceremony caps nearly a year of turmoil in Zimbabwe that began last March when Tsvangirai won a first-round presidential vote. Mugabe responded with a wave of state violence that killed 180 opposition supporters. Tsvangirai pulled out of the run-off election, which left Mugabe to claim a one-sided victory that was dismissed as a sham, both in Zimbabwe and abroad.
South Africa then brokered a deal to bring Mugabe into a power-sharing government with Tsvangirai. The agreement was signed on Sept. 15 last year but was stalled by Mugabe's refusal to share cabinet posts and Tsvangirai's rejection of a settlement that would leave him without adequate power.
“It is clearly Tsvangirai’s day,” said Iddah Mandaza, a Harare resident who watched the swearing in on state television. “Tsvangirai appeared lively and energetic. Everybody lined up to shake hands and hug him. Mugabe, on the other hand, was off to the side. He was not the center of attention. The body language said it all. Mugabe was slumped in a big chair, appearing grumpy, only occasionally forcing himself to look up and smile.”
Tsvangirai has already brought new energy and direction to the government by appointing several young, well-qualified members of his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), to cabinet posts.
Firebrand lawyer Tendai Biti will be Minister of Finance. Thirty-one-year-old Nelson Chamisa will be Minister for Information Technology. Both Biti and Chamisa are on Facebook, a significant sign that Tsvangirai’s new team is looking forward.
Former army officer Giles Mutsekwa will share the post of Minister of Home Affairs, in charge of police. Mutsekwa himself was jailed by the police last year.
The government is divided into two camps with Mugabe appointing half the cabinet posts and Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, the leader of a smaller splinter of his MDC, appointing the other half. Mugabe will preside over cabinet meetings. Tsvangirai will run the newly-created Council of Ministers. The two parties will share control of the strategically crucial Home Affairs ministry, which runs the police.
The new government has been criticized by many as an unwieldy and unworkable construction, but it has been welcomed by masses of Zimbabweans because it offers some hope of change. Mugabe and his cronies may well work to block every action by Tsvangirai, according to academics. But there is growing pressure on Mugabe from the leaders of neighboring countries, as well as Tsvangirai, to stabilize Zimbabwe’s economy and to end the hunger and disease.