CAPE TOWN, Feb 21 – Reconstructing Zimbabwe may cost as much as five billion US dollars (four billion euros), Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said Friday as he opened his hands to neighbouring countries.,
Tsvangirai was speaking after meeting South African President Kgalema Motlanthe who has convened the region’s finance ministers next week to devise a plan to assist their starving and desperate neighbour.
"What we are looking for is a short-term intervention to make sure we are jump-starting those institutions that affect people," Tsvangirai told reporters in Cape Town.
Tsvangirai, who joined a historic unity government last week with his bitter rival, President Robert Mugabe, warned that long-term reconstruction could "run into billions of dollars, maybe as high as five billion.
"Our situation is dire. The key priority areas are food, health and education."
Schools in Zimbabwe are shut, its economy lies shattered after 29 years of Mugabe rule, and its healthcare system is struggling to cope with a cholera epidemic that has claimed more than 3,750 lives.
Nearly seven million people need food aid and up to three million have fled the country. Unemployment is at 94 percent and only 20 percent of children are going to school.
Public hospitals are closed, even though 1.3 million people have HIV. The cholera epidemic has ravaged the country, hitting more than 80,000 people since August.
Motlanthe said South Africa, chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) bloc, had directed regional finance ministers to develop a plan to help Zimbabwe, and again called for sanctions to be lifted.
"They have presented to us their preliminary plan to respond to these challenges which we have agreed to deal with.
"There are no figures to speak of, these are going to be crunched by technical people and finance ministers to be meeting on these issues," he said.
Tsvangirai said his government would first concentrate on short-term priorities.
Zimbabwe is buckling under economic meltdown, characterised by the world’s highest inflation, which had officially soared to 231 million percent by last July.
Most essential civil servants, including teachers, nurses and doctors, have been on strike since last year over poor pay.
Tsvangirai promised to pay them in US dollars to counter the impact of hyperinflation and said Zimbabwe would use a multi-currency approach in the future, using the South African rand and the US dollar.
"As we proceed we will see if the Zimbabwe dollar can be re-used again," he said.
Analysts have questioned how such bitter adversaries as Mugabe and Tsvangirai will be able to work together to curb the humanitarian crisis.
Mugabe, 84, has held for himself the powerful ministries of defence, justice and foreign affairs.
Tsvangirai has appointed his top aide Tendai Biti to the crucial post of finance minister.
To rebuild the country, they will need massive foreign investment, but western countries so far say they want to see real improvements from the government first.
Speaking in Harare Friday, central bank governor Gideon Gono said regional and international financiers had offered Zimbabwe 500 million dollars in credit, but were wary of conflicting policy statements.
The swearing-in of the new government, supposed to usher in a new era of unity, was marred by the detention of Roy Bennett, a white Zimbabwean farmer who Tsvangirai had named his deputy agriculture minister.
His arrest last Friday came shortly before the swearing in of the unity government’s cabinet and cast immediate doubt on its credibility.
In elections last March Tsvangirai’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) seized a parliamentary majority for the first time.
Tsvangirai also finished ahead of Mugabe in a first-round presidential vote but the result sparked a wave of political violence, prompting Tsvangirai to pull out of a June second round run-off.