Morgan Tsvangarai: Zimbabwe’s Mandela or Just an Encumbrance?

When Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC joined Robert Mugabe and ZANU (PF) in a unity government, Tsvangirai said it was to bring an end to the violence. Although he seems to have achieved that for now, the unity government of which he is supposedly second in command has achieved very little else. With elections looming in early 2013 it’s increasingly looking like all the Southern African Development Community (SADC) achieved by brokering the formation of a unity government was a papering over of some profound and fundamental differences without creating any mechanism for fostering unity or reconciliation. The very act of agreeing to the formation of a unity government and the vision, or lack thereof that this entailed calls into question the judgement of Morgan Tsvangirai. There is no doubt that the man has courage. He has stood up to Mugabe in a way that no other opposition figure has been able to and has been arrested and badly beaten by Mugabe’s state security thugs for doing so. He clearly has a commitment to a better country but does he have the leadership ability that is needed to take Zimbabwe into a post Mugabe era?

Image courtesy of UK FCO, © 2011, some rights reserved.

At an MDC meeting in Bulawayo more than 10 years ago David Coltart, currently a Minister in the unity government and an MP at the time, made a direct comparison between Morgan Tsvangirai and Nelson Mandela. He tried to convince the audience that Tsvangirai was Zimbabwe’s Mandela, and that he would lead a triumphal new era in Zimbabwe if people were to vote for him. As someone who lived through the Mandela era in South Africa and attended his inauguration as President, this sounded like extreme hyperbole at the time, and seems slightly ridiculous now. Mr Coltart has since joined the faction of the MDC which has broken away from Mr Tsvangirai, which may indicate that he is equally disillusioned, although he appears to have principled reasons for doing so.

But the man that was supposed to be Zimbabwe’s saviour has simply not achieved very much. The unity government is fragile, with Tsvangirai himself threatening to leave on occasion. Key members of the MDC continue to be harassed by the army and police who retain an outspoken loyalty to the President. Mugabe appears to tell SADC and other organizations whatever they want to hear and then carry on as he always has done regardless of any agreement.  He is currently threatening to force all companies to hand over a controlling shareholding to what he calls ‘indigenous Zimbabweans’. Tsvangirai is continually out–manoeuvred by Mugabe, both because of the sheer ruthlessness of the President and his henchmen as well as their thinly veiled determination to hang on to power at any cost. Last week Mugabe persuaded a High Court judge that government could not afford to hold by-elections in three constituencies which recently fell vacant. These were all MDC constituencies which ZANU (PF) would almost certainly have lost. Against the machinations of Mugabe and his clique, Tsvangirai and the MDC seem hopelessly naive as they cling to the moral high ground in circumstances where that is not a particularly ambitious aspiration. What does Tsvangirai hope to achieve by continuing to participate in this farce?

At the heart of the issue is the shape and form of the country which Mugabe has run as his personal fiefdom for over 30 years. His vision of the country as a modern day regional power similar to the ancient Monomotapa Empire represented by the ruined stone buildings at Great Zimbabwe is his only point of reference when it comes to a vision for the country. His version of history informs much of the justification for deciding who ‘belongs’ in Zimbabwe and what measures he is justified in taking to get rid of those who don’t. He makes no secret of the fact that whites don’t belong in Zimbabwe and he almost certainly views the Ndebele minority as invaders, having arrived in Zimbabwe from South Africa only 60 years before the first white settlers. His forces killed about 20,000 people in Matabeleland in the 1980’s before a similar ‘unity’ accord was brokered with a beaten and disillusioned Joshua Nkomo. It also justifies his total dominance of the political landscape and sets him up as the only Zimbabwean politician true to the country’s historical glory.  Mugabe’s political rhetoric has achieved a distortion of history which needs to be met head on with an alternative.

For an opposition leader with vision, this would seem to be ample material to work with and yet Tsvangirai fiddles with the minutia of government and the divisions of his party, whilst appearing to enjoy the trappings of the office of Prime Minister a little too much. His personal life since the tragic death of his wife in a car accident is either inordinately complicated or has been hijacked by women whose motives remain obscure but could easily be in the pay of Mugabe and his Central Intelligence Organisation. Either way it has drawn him into embarrassing court battles which contrast markedly with Mandela’s dignified conduct during his marital problems. Tsvangirai does not seem to articulate any alternative for the country beyond the bland condemnation of human rights abuses and countless other crimes committed by Mugabe. If one were to sum up what Morgan Tsvangirai believed in it would consist of a list of commonplace assertions, all of which are laudable but none of which constitutes a vision for the new country that Zimbabwe needs to become in order to progress post Mugabe. Contrast this with Mandela’s vision and it all seems a bit pathetic.

So as Zimbabwe stumbles onward, it seems doubtful that Morgan Tsvangirai will be the man who ultimately leads the country on the long walk to freedom, as much as one would like to congratulate him for trying. The country needs a new leader and a new vision for the future and there is no obvious candidate who has the character to do the job.

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