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Burkeman, The Guardian (UK)
July 28, 2007
With Zimbabwe on the
brink of collapse, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is pinning
his hopes on election strategies and democratic development. But
can that ever really be enough? Oliver Burkeman asks him.
When a country's inflation
rate reaches 4,500%, things begin to happen that are so surreal,
so Alice In Wonderland, that for those looking on from abroad, it's
almost possible to forget that they are also desperately tragic.
A banana in Zimbabwe now costs as much as several large houses did
seven years ago. Some of the nation's poorest people are multimillionaires:
a night watchman, for example, might earn two million Zimbabwean
dollars a month, but that's too little to feed a family - and in
any case, four-fifths of adults have no job in the legitimate economy.
The elite still get to go golfing, but they pay for their drinks
before they start, because the price might have rocketed by the
end of the round. "What does 4,000% even mean? It's hard to
imagine," says Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's opposition leader,
as if he can't quite grasp it himself. "It means that the cooking
oil you bought today, within three days may sell for three times
what you paid for it. That's what it means. And for the ordinary
person, who has no means? It means death. The kiss of death."
Tsvangirai is in London,
visiting the TUC headquarters and rallying support. He's perched,
with characteristic restlessness, on the edge of a table (he insists
it's "much more relaxing" than sitting in a chair). He
looks refreshed and dapper in a charcoal-grey suit - barely recognisable
alongside news photographs taken earlier this year, after he was
arrested en route to a prayer rally outside the capital, Harare,
and severely beaten by police. They knocked him unconscious, fractured
his skull and caused major internal bleeding; they also badly injured
several other members of his party, the Movement for Democratic
Change (MDC). The photographs show Tsvangirai in evident pain, with
scars where doctors had shaved off a portion of his hair to mend
the fracture. "It's all hidden back there somewhere now,"
he says, touching his regrown curls lightly with his palm.
The beating was an act
of high-profile brutality and intimidation, even by the standards
of Robert Mugabe, the 83-year-old freedom fighter turned despot
presiding over Zimbabwe's accelerating implosion. Tsvangirai had
turned 55 the night before the attack, and stayed up late at home,
partying. "We were up until 12 o'clock, celebrating - all happy,
all enjoying ourselves. But I think, at the back of our minds, everyone
was conscious that something was going to happen soon." The
next day, on the doorstep, his wife Susan "jokingly" warned
him not to get himself arrested at the rally. As he drew near, Tsvangirai
heard that members of the MDC's leadership had been arrested, so
he called in at the police station to investigate. "Somebody
there said, 'You are wanted outside.' I went out and as soon as
he saw me, [a policeman] said: 'Where have you been? Why are people
beating the police?' I said, 'Which people?' He said, 'Lie down!'
So I lay down and 15 people came over and beat me all over. I just
went out... when I regained consciousness, I was bleeding."
Two weeks later, hundreds of police raided the MDC's offices and,
in Tsvangirai's words, "vandalised the whole place."
The MDC leader's international
profile is, he believes, why he's still permitted to travel around
the world, and he's in London in between rounds of negotiations
involving the MDC and Mugabe's Zanu PF, taking place in South Africa
and brokered by president Thabo Mbeki. Tsvangirai is cautiously
optimistic. But a few days after we meet, when he has returned to
South Africa, the Zanu representatives stop showing up at the talks.
The situation in Zimbabwe has been complex for a long time, but
these days it is chillingly simple. Not too many years ago, it was
relevant to point out that Mugabe, whatever his faults, had led
a successful liberation struggle against Ian Smith's illegal whites-only
rule, and to note that farmland redistribution of some sort - if
not the chaos Mugabe unleashed - might have been long overdue. Today,
thousands are homeless as a result of slum clearances; life expectancy
has plummeted to 37 for men and 34 for women; food aid has been
withheld from regions that voted for the MDC in the last election,
starvation is growing, and there is a fuel crisis. (Mugabe's minister
of national security, asked about deaths from disease and starvation,
once said, "We don't want all those extra people.") Critical
newspapers have had their offices bombed and their journalists tortured;
the BBC and other foreign media organisations have been banned from
reporting inside the country.
a conflicted personality, and evokes conflicting emotions,"
Tsvangirai says. "On the one hand, he's perceived as a very
principled liberation fighter. On the other, he's a villain and
he's driven Zimbabwe to where it is today... These parties [such
as Zanu PF], they are liberation parties! But they would rather
retain power without referring to the people. They would rather
have one-party states and rule by decree. We cannot collaborate
with that." He insists his beating backfired: "People
can say to themselves, 'Yes, we are being beaten. But the party
leader is also being beaten. So it's not like he's sending us out
as cannon fodder. Everyone is sacrificing.'" Mugabe has a legendary
knack for presenting himself as the champion of the oppressed, even
as he oppresses them: though Zimbabwe's recent elections have been
anything but free and fair, he has persuaded millions to vote for
him. But the trick may not work for ever.
The police and soldiers
who enforce his rule need to eat, and his powerful supporters in
Zanu have business interests now teetering on the brink of collapse
with the rest of the economy. (Mugabe recently ordered shops to
halve the price of food, but this measure simply drove the few remaining
products off the shelves and on to the black market.) The departing
US ambassador to Harare, Christopher Dell, has predicted the regime
could fall within six months. "Are we now in the endgame? Of
course," Tsvangirai says. "We are in a transition phase.
The only question is, which transition?" In other words: democracy,
or another Zanu strongman to fill Mugabe's shoes? "But either
way, it is certainly an endgame, because things are spiralling out
of control. You know, you can rig an election, but you can't rig
Tsvangirai vividly remembers
the day Smith declared independence, cutting Rhodesia adrift from
British colonial rule. The future MDC leader was 12, the son of
a rural carpenter and the eldest boy in a family that would grow
to nine children. "A teacher came running in and said, 'Smith
has declared independence!' I said, 'What does that mean?' He said,
'It means the whites have declared they're going to rule independently.
This is totally unacceptable!' He was a bit politically conscious,
I remember." Tsvangirai went to work in a nickel mine, and
stayed for 10 years. As black nationalists began their armed struggle
against Smith's rule, he became active in trade union politics;
following Smith's overthrow, he became a prominent union leader.
"During the night [in the war], you would experience rocket
attacks on the mine, all that kind of thing. So it was some life.
My generation was the one that experienced the freedom. But we fought
for that freedom, too."
Today, the main criticism
levelled at Tsvangirai is that he doesn't fight hard enough - that
all his talk of "election strategies" and "transitional
democratic development" is puny in a country where violent
intimidation is rife, elections are rigged and a bloody, anarchic
uprising seems ever more imminent. "It's delusional for the
MDC to believe they can ever win an election while Mugabe's people
are in power," says Peter Tatchell, the human rights campaigner
who has twice tried to make a citizen's arrest of Mugabe. "The
MDC is a pale shadow of the ANC: it's nowhere near as well organised.
Many of the activists are incredibly courageous, but they don't
have the strategic and tactical understanding." Tsvangirai's
most vocal domestic critic on the anti-Mugabe side is Pius Ncube,
the Zimbabwean Catholic archbishop, who recently called for Britain
to launch an armed raid on his country. The MDC has been riven with
internal conflicts, and Tsvangirai's overbearing personality, Ncube
says, is getting in the way of the fight for democracy. "They
are thereby actually disappointing the people of Zimbabwe, because
Mugabe can always give excuses and say the opposition is not even
Ncube - himself currently
embroiled in an alleged sex scandal, fomented by Mugabe - has said.
"They must inspire their people, to stand up and be ready to
be self-sacrificing, ready to face pain." That's a harsh thing
to say about a man who has twice faced treason charges, whose supporters
are regularly beaten by government forces and who has received strikingly
little in the way of international support. Many African leaders
have been unwilling actively to oppose former freedom fighter Mugabe:
Mbeki, for example, has preferred to speak only of "quiet diplomacy".
The wider world has not proved much more supportive. There are limited
sanctions in place against government officials, some of whom are
also subject to an EU and US travel ban. But in December Portugal,
which holds the EU presidency, plans to welcome Mugabe to a summit
in Lisbon, despite the ban. "Mugabe has murdered more black
Africans than even the evil apartheid regime," Tatchell says,
"yet there's no global solidarity for the struggle for democracy
in Zimbabwe, no mass protests. They've been badly let down."
Tsvangirai, with a politician's
readiness, dismisses his detractors as armchair critics. "Oh,
it's in the nature of movements like ours to be blamed and criticised,"
he says. "It's a reflection of the frustration of having no
change, because people want change yesterday... You just have to
accept that, as a pioneer of this new experience - the new democratic
movement - you're going to receive a lot of flak." Something
dramatic will happen in Zimbabwe, and soon. What's far from certain
is that Tsvangirai will be able to have any say in events as they
unfold; the country may simply collapse, or find itself with another
undemocratic ruler. (The MDC is rumoured to be conducting back-channel
talks with disaffected Zanu members, but Tsvangirai's lips are sealed:
"These things are not talked about," is all he'll say.)
But if Tsvangirai's path forward is enormously unclear, his ultimate
destination is not. "Among some African leaders, there's a
nationalist sense, which says we will do it our own way. But for
us - the post-liberation generation - we find it unacceptable to
have an 'African democracy' or a 'European democracy'," he
says. "Democracy is a universal attribute. It's not: 'Let's
try to make adjustments, so we have an African standard.' Not the
lowest common denominator. I am committed to the optimum democratic
That would include some
kind of justice for Mugabe and his cronies. "You cannot ignore
the outcry of the victims. The country will need national healing.
You cannot allow the perpetrators to get away with impunity."
It's early evening and a member of Tsvangirai's contingent is fussing
around him, worried he might be getting tired. The concern seems
misplaced: tiredness does not appear to be part of his repertoire.
"You should come with us campaigning on the road," says
Hebson Makuvise, Tsvangirai's London representative, when I mention
this. "Then you would see that this man, he is not a human
being." Tsvangirai overhears us. "Ridiculous," he
says quietly, but he's beaming at the accolade. He won't be sleeping
much in his hotel, either, he insists: "I don't think I will
ever have a peaceful sleep outside Zimbabwe, outside my country."
It comes across as a classic, cheesy politician's line. Tsvangirai
is good at these. But rescuing Zimbabwe, of course, will take inconceivably
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