Nelson Mandela emerged from prison on 11th February 19 years ago. On 11th February 2009, Tsvangirai was sworn in as Zimbabwean prime minister. Tsvangirai drew a parallel between himself and Mandela during his acceptance speech—but it was too grand a comparison.
Mandela had lengthy negotiations ahead of him, but he knew that historic change was on the horizon and that he could win the elections and unite the country. Tsvangirai has won an election, but all that did was prompt violence and a deeply unsatisfactory settlement. Tsvangirai agreed to accept it, but his own party wouldn’t. Months of standoff and further negotiations followed. Tsvangirai’s country is divided, impoverished, and Robert Mugabe is still its president. Whereas Mandela achieved a clean slate, Tsvangirai’s slate is mired in mud and blood.
Indeed, it was Mugabe who administered Tsvangirai’s oath. Mugabe wasn’t smirking. As he has aged the muscles around his mouth have slackened, so he just looks like he’s smirking. But he was satisfied with his work: he had kept his party in power and he will work to ensure that it is he who occupies the cockpit. Tsvangirai can be the airline steward.
The key question is whether Tsvangirai has the political skills to do what Raul Odinga did in Kenya the power-sharing deal in 2007. There, Odinga, as prime minister, has managed to eclipse Mwai Kibaki as president. Odinga has advised Tsvangirai throughout the last few months, but Odinga has always believed he was born to be president and has spent all his life preparing for that role. Tsvangirai was a trade union boss and makes the perfect opposition leader. He has been a tremendously courageous one. Can he be a good prime minister and can he eclipse Mugabe?
Mugabe looks down on Tsvangirai as an intellectual inferior. This is true. Tsvangirai must prove himself the political superior, and this will be hard: Mugabe’s hard men are still there, backing their president. At the very least, they now know they will get off scot-free from their long list of crimes and corruptions. But they are very able men. Some would be useful in rebuilding the country. Can Tsvangirai’s deputy, the new finance minister, Tendai Biti, overcome his loud mouth and complete lack of financial training, to outmanoeuvre the brilliant but self-serving Gideon Gono, Mugabe’s man in the reserve bank? Gono can talk a language Biti cannot even understand.
And it’s not just a case of whether Tsvangirai and his men have the neccessary skill. It’s also a case of whether the western powers can swallow their distaste at having Mugabe still in some form of power—and a case of whether the west, undergoing its own financial meltdown, has any shekels left to help the very brave man who has become Zimbabwean prime minister.