As the finance minister in Zimbabwe’s government of national unity, Tendai Biti is trying to repair the economic damage inflicted by the Mugabe regime. He likens it to drowning in a sewer but is confident he can make a difference.
Monocle: Has anything surprised you about the job so far?
Tendai Biti: It’s a mad house. It’s a real mad house. I ran an extremely busy law practice but it’s nothing compared to this. It’s like you’re in a sewer. Drowning in a sewer. This job is not academic. People are dying, people are starving. There is no employment, inflation was high. Whatever you do is touching the life of every single individual in Zimbabwe.
M: What are the challenges of working closely with people who fought so hard to keep you out of power?
TB: This is a coalition government of partners that for over 10 years have been at each other’s throats. It’s a very delicate compromise. Everything you do there is suspicion; there is disbelief. There is that nagging feeling among others that whatever one is trying to do is a condemnation of the past. When you have 500 billion per cent inflation, when you have 95 per cent unemployment, there is an element of saying “yes, you guys failed”. So pushing things through is not easy.
M: How do you get things done then?
TB: You have to be a thug. Once you think that something is right then you must have the courage of pushing it through. You have to have the capacity for a fight. Every inch is a fight.
M: What are the biggest changes you’ve introduced so far?
TB: Our biggest achievement has been the Short Term Emergency Recovery Programme [Sterp]. What it did was liberalise our economy, free it from the tentacles of controls, controls, controls. That was important. We’ve done well as far as inflation is concerned. From a figure of 500bn per cent to an average of -1 per cent from January to May. It rose a bit in June and July but it was -1 per cent again in September. Now there is food in the supermarkets of Zimbabwe, food everywhere. A year ago you couldn’t get anything. Now there is predictability. People can plan.
M: So do you believe that you are making progress?
TB: We are going in the right direction but we are not out of the woods yet. What we did in February  was give birth to a new baby. That economy is now in kindergarten. I hoped we would be in primary school by the start of 2010 (and then fast track ourselves to high school and be at Oxford or Harvard in five years’ time). But we are still in kindergarten – an overgrown kid in kindergarten.
M: What can the outside world do to help?
TB: Our colleagues in Africa have been very good in terms of moral support. But their economies are fragile. South Africa is now in the middle of a biting recession. If South Africa is in the hospital it also means that neighbouring economies are critical. So you don’t expect $10m from southern African countries. What we should do is move towards quick regional integration. Based less on trade but on infrastructural synergies. Power sharing, road corridors, railways. What is critical is an integrated fibreoptic in the region.
M:This is the first African country I’ve been in where I can’t use my BlackBerry.
TB: I survive on 3G but it doesn’t work in Zimbabwe. Fortunately it works here in the office. I’ve got wireless. We put it in just for this floor.
M:You’ve talked about what Africa can do. What about the West?
TB:The West has not greeted us with open arms. It’s sulking. A lot of people are sulking because [Robert] Mugabe is still there. The transitional government is a step towards the democratisation of our country. It’s not the full democratisation but it’s an important step. A window has been opened. We have to make this experiment work.
M: What’s your relationship with President Mugabe like? Do you work closely with him?
TB: He’s the president of the country so on key issues you have to go to him. I’m fixing his mess. I’ve no problem with him. I find him very receptive. He listens. We debate. He has got a mind. It’s refreshing to go there and argue a case. He is open to persuasion.
M: Has he ever tried to block anything?
TB: Nothing. Not at all. Not a single thing.
M: How many staff do you have?
TB: The staff complement is about 200 but there is a shortage of about 70 economists. The average employee has been working for less than one year. They are little girls and little boys that graduated in 2007 and 2008. People left – 2008 was bad. They went to South Africa or elsewhere. Everyone left. Senior civil servants too.
M: How much are you paid?
TB: It was $100 [a month] until June. I think it’s now… [he turns to his permanent secretary]. How much do you give me? $150. I’m eating into my savings from 18 years as a lawyer.
1966: Born in Harare
1986: Attends University of Zimbabwe law school
1999: Helps to launch opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)
2000: Is elected as an MP
2008: Runs MDC party’s general election campaign in March. Three months later he is arrested on treason charges. Released on bail within a fortnight
2009: In February, he is named Zimbabwe’s minister of finance in new government of national unity. In August, he reveals he has received death threats