William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Tsvangirai naive but not lightweight

Despair at the failings of one leader should not blind one to the faults of his rival. That’s a political truism which is easy to forget when casting about for an alternative to a venal despot like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

Some dismiss Morgan Tsvangirai as too intellectually lightweight a contender to land the knockout blow against Mugabe, the consummate political tactician. Tellingly testimony to Mugabe’s unrivalled canniness is that the ailing octogenarian is still securely ensconced 31 years after independence, untouched by Arab Springs and other manifestations of popular dissatisfaction?

Nor will it bolster the sceptics’ confidence in Tsvangirai that he admits in his just released autobiography, At the Deep End, that he was not au fait with electoral law when tackling Mugabe in the 2008 presidential elections. Tsvangirai won 47.9% of the vote, while Mugabe – despite massive electoral fraud – trailed at 43.2%, with Simba Makoni scraping a meagre 8.3%

Tsvangirai stood ready to announce his administration, only to be stymied by an announcement by South African President Thabo Mbeki that there would have to be a run-off. ‘I was unaware that the law had been changed to deny a winner without 50% plus one vote to take over government,’ writes Tsvangirai. ‘It must have slipped my mind at the time when it went through Parliament.’

That’s quite a slip, not only of Tsvangirai’s mind, but also the collective mind of his advisers. On the other hand, it does inadvertently demolish the propaganda that his Movement for Democratic Change is the well-oiled, lavishly funded creation of imperial powers, which orchestrate his every move. Also, given the vanity of most politicians and the gloss they put on their past, it’s rather refreshing that Tsvangirai doesn’t bother much with the airbrush.

Zimbabwe remains the gloomy obsession of South Africans – it could not be otherwise given its proximity and the fact that more than two million of its citizens have taken refuge here. Among whites, a favourite parlour game is Spot the Similarity, in which participants vie to list the fatal flaws causing Zimbabwe’s collapse that they believe are mirrored in SA.

Reading Tsvangirai, however, one is struck more by the differences: a strong constitution; an internationally competitive economy; a credible opposition party; a free press; a strong civil society; and, touch wood, the presence within the ruling alliance of a large bloc of committed democrats.

Nevertheless, these embattled democrats within the African National Congress’ tripartite alliance would do well to refresh their memories on how autocratically inclined liberation movements often come to destroy the very democracies that they fought selflessly to put in place.

And those in the SA Communist Party and the Congress of SA Trade Unions will find in Tsvangirai’s account – that of a socialist trade unionist who initially revered Mugabe – some chilling local parallels in how quickly a fascist nationalism took root in Zimbabwe, driven by self-aggrandisement, racism, and corruption.

SA’s whites, too, would do well to be reminded on how not to do things. For instance, imagining that they can somehow isolate themselves in a laager and remain untouched by the political hurly-burly consuming their country.

There is enough meaty stuff to show that Tsvangirai is no lightweight. However, by his own admission he has been at times stunningly naïve, almost terminally so.

His and his family have faced vitriol, ridicule, ostracisation and violence. He as been beaten, arrested on trumped up charges, and ‘disappeared’ for weeks. Relatives have lost jobs and contracts. Friends and colleagues have been firebombed, assaulted, tortured and murdered.

All because he and the MDC have consistently underestimated Zanu-PF’s determination to hang onto power. Naiveté can be fatal in Africa.

+ At the Deep End, Morgan Tsvangirai with William Bango, Penguin

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