THE NGO NETWORK ALLIANCE PROJECT - an online community for Zimbabwean activists  
 View archive by sector


Back to Index

The battered dream
Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian (UK)
July 28, 2007,,2135053,00.html

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.

"Mugabe epitomises 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 an economy."

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 united,"

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 idea."

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 more.

Please credit if you make use of material from this website. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.