What kind of transition for Zimbabwe?

Today Morgan Tsvangirai has been sworn in as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, a position first agreed on five months ago but now hastily created by a ‘fast-tracking’ of parliamentary procedures at SADC’s behest. Millions of Zimbabweans both within and outside the country, as well as a wider community of observers in the region and further afield, will be wondering what this signifies for positive change, if any, in a country staggering to keep afloat after nine years of violent political, economic and social crisis.

The hope – indeed, the desperate need – is that the establishment of a form of Government of National Unity (GNU) between Zanu (PF) and the two factions of the MDC, will deliver at least the very basics of survival and revival. As a start, this requires urgent attention, simultaneously, to regenerating the economy and restoring a working justice system, establishing food security and human safety, providing essential public infrastructure and services, and facilitating the safe but voluntary return of millions of displaced Zimbabweans. Bearing in mind the extent and complexity of the challenges all this poses, it is nonetheless crucial that there is evidence of some progress in all these spheres fairly early if there’s to be any credibility to this so-called power-sharing agreement.

So much has been deeply, and often deliberately, destroyed by the ruling regime. Ensuring the basics will be neither simple nor quick to achieve, and will require a great deal of carefully planned, well coordinated and transparently implemented support, alongside consistent political commitment from all concerned. Yet even at the last minute, just days before a new multi-party cabinet is sworn in and while efforts are underway to solicit financial support from international donors, continued acts of gross negligence and direct abuse of power are being perpetrated by those holding (onto) positions of authority in the state. The refusal of the former Mugabe government to observe court orders to release abductees and detainees, or even to allow them medical treatment, is just one case in point.

Clearly there are those spoilers – most overtly members of the Joint Operations Command, but others too – still trying to undermine the potential for any kind of unity government to work. This is not surprising, given that a new dispensation (even if fragile) is likely to interrupt their untrammeled access to the country’s scarce resources, or may even lead to their eventual prosecution for abuse of power and crimes against humanity. In addition, given the expectation that a new constitution is written and new elections are held within eighteen months, it might even lead to further defeats for Zanu (PF) as a whole.

Yet despite the range of threats posed to the success of a unity government, it is important to acknowledge and build on the positive aspects of this moment.   There is, for now, an important structural shift in the political landscape, with the MDC occupying important (if not sufficient) positions in government, that could make a significant difference to people’s lives. Some members of Zanu (PF) are actively interested in making things work to help the country out of the terrible mess it’s in, even if the party itself is deeply fractured. There is an overt commitment from SADC to ensuring that the unity government works, although SADC itself has demonstrated great inconsistency in its handling of Zimbabwe to date. There are signs, even if appropriately cautious, that international donors will re-engage with this new government and assist in rebuilding Zimbabwe, dependent as this may be on clear signs of internal change in the actions of key players in the former regime. And still, against all the odds, there is an active and articulate civil society within Zimbabwe, with wide support from outside its borders that can – and must – act as a crucial watchdog to ensure accountability from all members of the new unity government.

Even at the last minute, it would not have been surprising had the MDC-T leader changed his mind, and withdrawn from the swearing-in ceremony today. This, not because of a pattern of changeability in relation to various difficult decisions in the past years, but rather because of – as has been a more consistent pattern – the unapologetic failure by Robert Mugabe and his ruling regime to fulfill their public promises and commitments. But Tsvangirai did get sworn in, and perhaps tomorrow is the beginning of change in Zimbabwe. Who knows.

To the top