The tragedy of Tsvangirai

Robert Mugabe stole the Zimbabwean election with violence and intimidation. But Morgan Tsvangirai unwittingly helped him. Stephen Chan explains how an opposition leader lost his bearings
August 30, 2008
A bitter defeat: now the real threat to Morgan Tsvangirai may not come from Zanu-PF, but from within his own party
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I left Zimbabwe the day after Robert Mugabe was reinaugurated as president. Watching on state television as the old man swore fealty to the country he has ruined, I packed my bag for the long haul back to London. It is winter now in Zimbabwe, meaning the days are like an English spring in their lightness and warmth, and the nights plunge to just a few degrees above zero. Everyone I talk to affects a jaded determination to survive, but there will be cold nights ahead.

I have seen many Zimbabwean elections. My first was in 1980 when, as a member of the Commonwealth observer group, I helped monitor the transition to independence and Mugabe's first electoral triumph. I have attended almost all campaigns or elections since, including all of this year's polls—the March elections and the June presidential runoffs. Over the years I have seen—close up—the hopes of the majority of Zimbabweans dashed by a corrupt and vicious oligarchy which cloaks itself in the rhetoric of anti-colonialism and self-determination.

The situation is all the more tragic because this year the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) handed Mugabe victory on a plate—the result of a miscalculation, a loss of nerve or both by its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. This failure has strengthened Mugabe's hand in the negotiations over a national unity government now taking place, after the "memorandum of understanding" signed by Mugabe and Tsvangirai on 21st July. The memorandum is a reason for cautious optimism—nevertheless, for the MDC the election was a bitter defeat; for Tsvangirai a personal tragedy.

Mugabe was never going to surrender the presidency without a dirty fight. Zanu-PF youth gangs and militias were told not to kill too many, but to dish out exemplary violence wherever they went. These beatings and torture sessions were interspersed with the constant threat of something even more violent to come. Entire villages and outlying city suburbs were issued with death threats. I have friends who were taken from Epworth, one of the poorest areas of Harare, to a remote location and held in complete silence for three days. The only thing they were told came at the start of the ordeal: "We could kill you and no one would even find your bodies." After sweating out days of fear and uncertainty, the captives became compliant and their abductors knew that Zanu-PF had nothing to fear from them.

Meanwhile, the anti-Mugabe forces were in chaos. The international community was divided in its tactics. The western nations—led by the British and the Americans—condemned loudly and pressed for sanctions, much to the discomfort of Zimbabwe's neighbours, who feared it might help push the country closer to civil war. South Africa, Botswana and Zambia have already absorbed large economic costs from the Zimbabwean meltdown and they feared that the collapse of Mugabe's dictatorship would lead to anarchy and further spillover into neighbouring countries. Moreover, western rhetoric didn't play well with the average Zimbabwean. Seen from the Harare street, Gordon Brown's performance in the House of Commons after the runoff election results, announcing a plan to push for new sanctions, was exactly what was not needed. It was a continuation of the Blair era, when foreign policy towards Africa could be simultaneously well-meant and supercilious. Few in Harare have forgotten Clare Short's infamous letter—written during the first days of the Blair administration—in which the then development secretary pointed to her own Irish "colonial victim" status and repudiated a British undertaking to fund land nationalisation: an act that helped create the climate that later led to violent (and uncompensated) land seizures. Meanwhile, US attempts to advise the MDC on election tactics had, as we shall see, disastrous consequences.


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If the foreigners were at sixes and sevens, the domestic opposition was little better. The MDC went into the elections still split from the divisions of late 2005 and early 2006, when a breakaway faction, led by Arthur Mutambara with strategic direction from Welshman Ncube, established a power base in western Zimbabwe and among many of the MDC's intellectual supporters. The split occurred amid accusations that Tsvangirai was no longer behaving democratically, taking decisions unilaterally which should have received the approval of the party's executive committee. Tsvangirai has always been impatient of process. Perhaps he came to believe he was the MDC. This was enough to fracture the MDC's brittle unity—and even the prospect of electoral victory was insufficient to repair it.

The two sides did try to heal their divisions, but Tsvangirai was unwilling to withdraw from contesting enough seats in Mutambara's western stronghold to reunite the party. Almost all Zimbabwean commentators agree that this was a fatal misjudgement on Tsvangirai's part. Had the MDC entered the first presidential round in lockstep with Mutambara, Tsvangirai might have got the crucial extra votes to win the presidency outright. As it was, Mutambara unselfishly refrained from running for president himself, giving Tsvangirai a clear run (although he did endorse a third-party candidate, Simba Makoni). But the voting patterns from the western constituencies show that the damage had been done. Mutambara's people felt slighted and Mugabe did much better than expected in the west.

Tsvangirai has always been a hit-and-miss politician—capable of strokes of genius but also prone to periods of wayward and ineffectual leadership. Born in 1952, Tsvangirai is the son of a rural carpenter—a member of the black lower middle class and a member of the same majority Shona ethnic group as Mugabe. Tsvangirai did not complete his education but found work as a nickel miner in the mid-1970s. He became politically active through his union affiliation, where he ascended the ladder, gaining a reputation as an effective negotiator, and eventually became the head of the national union movement in 1988. Originally an enthusiastic supporter of Zanu-PF, he became disillusioned after Mugabe's first big authoritarian crackdown in Harare in 1991. The rift deepened in the mid-1990s as Tsvangirai clashed with the government over the impact on his members of an IMF structural adjustment programme that crimped the economy.

Tsvangirai has always been a man of action and used to like teasing Zimbabwean intellectuals for thinking too much. He can be ruthless, as in the late 1990s when the MDC arose from, then split with, the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), just when that body was becoming the largest civil society group Zimbabwe had ever known. Many in the NCA took a long time to forgive him, but the secession of the MDC decisively tilted the struggle against Mugabe and Zanu-PF into the realm of party politics, rather than grassroots action. Yet Tsvangirai's flashes of ruthless decisiveness can be accompanied by protracted hesitation. The MDC has often seemed rudderless. In fact, the captain is at the tiller but not steering the ship.

I admire Tsvangirai. I wrote a book about him, based on many hours of face-to-face interviews, which was distributed underground in Zimbabwe to help the MDC's 2005 campaign. I attended those elections and acknowledged the book was mine. I was and am prepared to stand up for Tsvangirai. But I also want to say that he screwed up.

Tsvangirai should have remained inside Zimbabwe for longer periods— especially between this year's first and second polls. While he and his deputy Tendai Biti courted international support, they left their party leaderless. The split in the MDC had left Tsvangirai's party as the larger of two factions, but Mutambara and Ncube had most of the politically astute thinkers in their group. Tsvangirai relied increasingly on advice from Biti, and with both of them travelling outside Zimbabwe, there was no second tier to hold the MDC together and give party workers strategic direction. There was also an undercurrent of suspicion, fanned by Zanu-PF, that Tsvangirai had lost his nerve and was putting his personal safety above the welfare of his people. The loss of MDC morale was clear.

Tsvangirai's main source of advice was the US embassy in Harare, especially after Mugabe's government arrested Biti on treason charges and imprisoned him two weeks before the runoff. The deliberate effect of the arrest was to deprive Tsvangirai of local guidance during the crucial closing stages of the campaign. This became a test of nerve: Zanu-PF wanted to break Tsvangirai's will by isolating him and threatening him physically. The US embassy sought to fill the gap, and was complicit in Tsvangirai's decisions to withdraw from the elections and seek refuge in the Dutch embassy. The plan was to hand Mugabe a hollow victory which the west could then attack. The US analysis was that the polls had already been fixed so a Tsvangirai victory was impossible. Participation would only legitimise a brazen "steal." The idea was also to create an image of such great intimidation that even a leader of the opposition could find safety from assassination only on diplomatic soil.

I want also to say unequivocally that the Americans screwed up. When Tsvangirai withdrew, Zanu-PF could hardly believe their luck. They were beginning to realise they were on the verge of overplaying their only hand, that of violence. Then, out of the blue, Tsvangirai solved all their problems for them.

Contrary to western information, Tsvangirai's consultation of his own party members, who did indeed protest they didn't want to die for nothing, was brief and sketchy. When the "consultation" took place, there was only a week to go before the runoff poll. At that point, the worst was probably over. Zanu-PF was under pressure to reduce the violence in the face of external African criticism. The party would have still sought to rig the count, but the result would have been at least more contestable and, at best, surprising.

Thabo Mbeki was reluctant to push too hard on Zimbabwe not just because of his complex attachment to Mugabe, but also because he never believed Tsvangirai would make an effective leader. This is unfair, as Tsvangirai has clearly matured, both politically and morally. He has taken almost all that Mugabe could throw at him. It may be, however, that Mugabe and Zanu-PF finally found the cracks in a very brave man, and levered them open.

This will all be debated for a long time. But Tsvangirai took the assassination rumours seriously enough to take his family into exile. Eleven years ago, he came within inches of being killed as government agents tried to push him out of a tenth-floor window high above Harare. He has been on trial for his life on treason charges. This time, there almost certainly was a plan to kill him. It is unlikely to have been activated while the world's attention was focused on Zimbabwe. In that gaze, he was probably safe, but the weeks of drip-feed rumours finally did their work.

The net effect is that Tsvangirai is a diminished leader, even within the MDC. He is universally regarded as courageous; even his Zanu-PF foes give him that. But a huge strand of Zanu-PF propaganda and covert action has been devoted to probing and exploiting his weak points. Few people would not have stumbled.

Following the disappointments of recent weeks, Tsvangirai needs to rally his battered forces. The split in the MDC must be more fully healed and all its leaders brought back into the tent if the party is not to be outmanoeuvred again. But Tsvangirai may no longer have the prestige to cement a reconciliation.

The election has rammed home his dependence on colleagues, even those who were rivals, such as Ncube and Biti. Ncube has the feel for both long-range strategy and policy. A professor of law, he has a strong sense of procedure and was one of the first to become alienated by Tsvangirai's liberties with the way the MDC operated. Biti, who remained with Tsvangirai, is also a lawyer and was long prominent in the fight for civil liberties and political freedom. But Biti's thinking is more like that of a barrister—brief by brief. He is a tactician to Ncube's strategist, and both will be needed in any new unity government. The exact form of such a government is the next chapter in the story.


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I am sitting in the Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, and can feel the tension seep out of my pores. I left Harare awash with speculation, habitual cynicism competing with bursts of hope. I have left behind many desperate people. The biggest difficulty is not the incredible inflation—where a Z$50bn note will buy just two cups of coffee (at time of going to press this is now Z$200bn)—or even the recurrent shortages of food, electricity and treated water. It is the lack of medical supplies. People dying of Aids and cancer will be given codeine as an analgesic in the doses we would take for headaches. There are many unpretty endings to life in Zimbabwe, not all at the hands of government party thugs. Many more will die if sanctions are stepped up.

As for the long-term result, the gossip of the African observers at the airport as they flew out of Harare seems about right. Having won the election, Mugabe will accept that it was his swan song. The observers confidently believe the negotiations towards a unity government will succeed. Sure, there will be a Zanu-PF president, though the identity of any long-term incumbent will be decided only after a power struggle among several unsavoury characters. There will have to be a constitutional amendment to create a Kenyan-style prime minister—this might be Tsvangirai's prize. The negotiations will determine how much power the premier holds versus the presidency. Zimbabwe will recover slowly, again like Kenya, as a land of promise but one riven with deep scars and huge inequalities.

A few days later, the African Union's Egyptian summit has finished and Mugabe is flying home. Zambia and Botswana were highly critical of his "victory." They were joined by Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal. But only one plan remains on the table for a post-Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe—and that is the South African plan for a unity government.

Mugabe was on his best grandstanding form in Egypt. He gave a long, impassioned and, apparently, moving piece of oratory, discoursing on the long historical cycle that would one day vindicate his nationalist mission. But his subsequent willingness to enter into talks with Tsvangirai shows that even he must know that the time has passed when appeals to anti-colonial solidarity could rally the African Union, even if his sentiments struck residual heartstrings. His lieutenants must also know that, at the age of 84, he is of little further use to them. They are all in their 60s and want a secure future for themselves as well as the fruits of their financial looting. It is these insiders—four top generals; Emerson Mnangagwa, the minister in charge of internal security; and Gideon Gono, the governor of the reserve bank—who will determine the endgame.

It will be messy, of course, and will require Zanu-PF to be persuaded not to create a merely cosmetic unity government. For the MDC, one of the key points of the July memorandum was that regional brokers others than Mbeki will play a more prominent role. Time will tell if this promise is honoured, but those now in the frame include Jean Ping of the African Union. Any mediator needs to be able to dangle some carrots. The only constructive role the west can now play is in underwriting the cost of economic recovery. This is a bitter pill. It will involve underpinning the prosperity of many who have stolen and plundered.

Many of Mugabe's supporters will demand influence around the table. Much of his core support is still voluntary—and even enthusiastic—and accounts for up to 40 per cent of the electorate. Although Zanu-PF's supporters are in the minority, they make up important sectors of society: probably the majority of the intellectual class, because of Mugabe's nationalist ideology; the huge majority of the senior military personnel from the liberation war; the urban oligarchies who have profited from manipulating an economy in free fall; village headmen who have never understood the MDC's largely urban appeal and who have been well rewarded in return; and a small but appreciable group of peasants who have finally gained ownership of patches of land—an issue that remains hugely important in Zimbabwe. The MDC, by contrast, is overwhelmingly the party of Harare and, to a lesser extent, the other big cities such as Bulawayo and Mutare. Its backbone is the salaried middle class, which has been the biggest loser from the economic collapse.

Despite holding many of the cards, Zanu-PF and its backers will have to display restraint. Among the MDC, the key senior players such as Ncube and Mutambara will need to be awarded significant ministries. And the best of the technocratic wing of Zanu-PF, people like Simba Makoni, Mugabe's other challenger for the presidency, will need to be on board. The west has always been prepared to do business with Makoni—a technocratic paragon of "Zanu-PF-lite" who many feel never really left the party—and might insist on his ministerial inclusion.

Of course, there will be arguments about Mugabe's eventual departure: about the length of any transition and whether he should retain a titular presidency. Although this would be largely ceremonial (Mugabe as the "Queen of Zimbabwe"), Zanu-PF would fight to retain the "commander-in-chief" role, meaning Mugabe, and Zanu-PF, would retain ultimate control of the military.

The elephant in the room is of course what role might be offered to Tsvangirai. Ironically, the real threat to his long-term future may not come from Zanu-PF but from within his own MDC. It is here that personal and political tragedies intersect. Many within the party are disillusioned with his recent performance. It is by no means certain he will remain at the top. If there is a succession, this will involve as many factional fights within the MDC as are likely to occur in a post-Mugabe Zanu-PF. The political careers of Makoni and Biti may have some way to run.


Whoever ultimately runs Zimbabwe will, of course, inherit an economic disaster. And whatever the political settlement, things will get worse before they get better. Gideon Gono has been printing money to cover the cost of his currency purchases and the result is Weimar-style inflation. US dollars or South African rand will need to be imposed as a viable currency, if not directly, then via a new Zimbabwean dollar tied directly to one of these currencies and underwritten by the international community for at least three years.

The agricultural sector will take time to regenerate. Other African providers have seized Zimbabwean markets; local infrastructure has decayed; there are few agri-industrial experts in either Zanu-PF or the MDC; and basic farming infrastructure has fallen apart. The mining industry is too small to lead an economic revival. And tourism is dead. The international community must invest heavily and provide balance-of-payments support. Debts owed to other states will need to be rescheduled. And reindustrialisation cannot depend on the South African grid, as Zimbabwe's southern neighbour is itself suffering electrical shortages.

Many in the 4m-strong Zimbabwean diaspora will come back as soon as an agreement on a unity government is declared, but a huge number will wait. For the sake of the transitional economy, they need to stay out. Their remittances keep afloat possibly a majority of families, even those with Zanu-PF sympathies, and will be needed for some time to come. But the longer they stay out, the more their vital skills will be missed in Zimbabwe.

Repairing the economy will require extremely painful measures, and any "unity leader" who implemented them would risk becoming unelectable in any future "honest" elections. Paradoxically, this may be a reason for a sort of cynical hope. Zanu-PF knows the economy must be rebuilt. It may therefore be willing to surrender the top executive post to an MDC leader—hoping to dodge the unpopularity and pave the way for a future return to power.

Of course, this brings us back to Mugabe's state of mind. Will he, or his inner circle, be able to accept any real political change? The Zanu-PF publicity on the eve of the election stressed Mugabe's relationship with God. Full-page advertisements likened him to Moses, then to King David. Tsvangirai was compared to David's rebellious son, Absalom. (Someone should have a word with Mugabe's researchers. After all, Moses never reached the promised land, and Absalom rebelled against his father on a platform of justice.) That said, Mugabe probably will go. Having delivered his party one last electoral "victory," he will be 89 by the next elections. His party knows a younger leader must be found before then, and the economy must be stabilised. Mugabe will be encouraged to bow out by his own people. Look to the September meeting of the Zanu-PF central committee to outline a timetable for departure, and the December party congress for the last great standing ovation from faithful followers. Beyond December lies the 2009 South African election. A Jacob Zuma presidency, much more heavily critical of Zanu-PF, must finally mean the end for Mugabe. It is also Tsvangirai's tragedy that this endgame may also encompass his own political demise.

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