Page last updated at 21:57 GMT, Wednesday, 29 July 2009 22:57 UK

Cautious optimism returns to Zimbabwe

The Zimbabwe Government has told the BBC there is no ban on its operations and it can resume reporting, legally and openly, in Zimbabwe. The BBC's Andrew Harding returns to an optimistic Harare.

The shelves are tightly stacked in a supermarket near Harare, July 2009
The BBC's Andrew Harding finds the shelves tightly stacked in a supermarket near Harare

It is five months since I was last in Zimbabwe, and there is no doubt that the mood has changed.

I'm here officially now, rather than sneaking around under cover, and of course that alters one's perceptions.

Our presence in Zimbabwe this week, is a welcome, constructive, and important first step
Jon Williams
BBC world news editor

But there's more to it than that.

Almost everyone I've spoken to over the past few days has, with varying degrees of caution, confessed to feeling at least a twinge of optimism about this battered nation.

"If things keep on like this, I think there might be a bright future," said Edmore Mashinga, who manages the meat section of a supermarket on the edge of Harare.

Last year the shelves were almost empty and, with hyperinflation raging, a kilo of tomatoes cost 61 billion Zimbabwe dollars.

Now the national currency has been abandoned, the US dollar is king, and the shelves and aisles are full.

"I earn $250 a month," said Mr Mashinga. "It's a lot more than before, but still not enough because I have a big family."

Meat on the menu

In a poor suburb closer to the city centre, an enthusiastic crowd quickly surrounded us.

Many were wary about giving their names - fear of President Robert Mugabe's security services remains very strong. But here's what some of them had to say:

An enthusiastic crowd greets the BBC in a poor suburb of Harare
People in a suburb of Harare say change is happening very slowly

"We can afford to get meat and bread now. The schools were closed for a long time. Now there is a change and a future. Ask anyone - even the kids."

"I think life is getting better because last year, even if you had cash, you could buy nothing because there was nothing in the shops."

"Things are not yet improving. It is only stabilising. We are getting some food in the shops, but to get money is a problem. Industry is still down. At the moment only a small percentage (of the population) is working."

"Prices are very high. People don't really know the true value of the (US) dollar. Things are changing slowly. Very slowly."

'Trench warfare'

When it comes to optimism, there is no-one more bullish about Zimbabwe than Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai attends the national dedication ceremony to promote peace and national healing, reconciliation and integration in Harare on July 24, 2009
Mr Tsvangirai has recently lost his wife but remains an optimist

He's had a gruelling few months since we last met secretly in Harare on the day after his inauguration.

He has lost his wife and a grandchild.

He has had to fight what one western diplomat called "trench warfare" against hardliners seemingly determined to undermine the power-sharing deal with President Mugabe's Zanu-PF.

Six of his MPs are being prosecuted. His finance minister was sent a live bullet in the post this week. But he remains relentlessly upbeat - like a super-tanker refusing to be pushed off course.

"We were diving into the unknown," he said, describing the shock of sharing government with the party whose thugs had beaten him and terrorised his supporters.

'No hardliners'

"Sometimes it is frustratingly slow, but there is a working relationship. Let me say the hardliners have come to accept that change is irreversible."

"This is a process that has gathered its own momentum. Zimbabwe is changing. There's so much interest in investing in this country. All those are positive signs."

In another small sign of change, we were given a rare invitation to President Mugabe's stronghold - the imposing headquarters of Zanu-PF in Harare.

John Nkomo, national chairman of Zanu-PF
Zanu-PF chairman John Nkomo says there are no hardliners in his party

The party's urbane national chairman, John Nkomo, seemed as upbeat as the prime minister.

Often described as President Mugabe's right hand man, he rejected any suggestion that members of his party were trying to derail the power-sharing government.

"I don't think there are any hardliners in Zanu-PF," he said.

"President Mugabe… is a principled man. Once he agrees on a programme he wants it implemented. It is in the interest of the whole of Zimbabwe that the agreement succeeds."

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