By Lance Guma
THE leader of Zimbabwe’s largest and strongest opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai, has in the space of a short time catapulted himself from ordinary trade u
nionist to a national icon, however much Zanu PF chooses to malign him in their monopolised and sometimes mediocre media.
While Zanu PF has forwarded the argument that his simple background reflects a lack of sophistication to deal with the intricate demands of running a country, they have opted to forget this is exactly what endears him to the majority of people in Zimbabwe. People do not want leaders who are complicated, aloof and stubborn since the ability to get representation rides on the simplicity and approachability of their leader.
The eldest of nine children and son to a bricklayer, the MDC president was born in Gutu, Masvingo in 1952. He left secondary school after his O-levels to become a textile weaver to support his family. In the current economic environment that is what most people are having to do and they can relate to it easily. As fate would have it he ended up working at Trojan Nickel Mine in Bindura, northeast of Harare.
In the 10 years he spent there he rose from plant operator to general foreman culminating in his election as branch chairman of the Associated Mine Workers’ Union. It was not long before he made the national executive of the union. In 1988 Tsvangirai became the secretar-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). This kind of progression in the unions says a lot about his charisma and ability as a solid administrator. The MDC owes a lot of its organisational capacity to his human resource management skills. This element has only been appreciated by staff in the MDC offices.
In 1989 he was imprisoned for six weeks on charges that he was a South African spy, all because he had led the ZCTU to break away from its alliance with Zanu PF. In the period 1997 and 1998 he led a series of successful strikes dubbed “stayaways” to protest tax increases by Mugabe’s regime which was eager to shore up resources to appease ex-combatants with gratuity and pension payments. The nationwide strikes were so successful that even Mugabe, well-known for his stubbornness, backed down. Tsvangirai’s political clothes were thus sewn, ironed and ready to be worn.
Riding on his new-found success, the unofficial opposition leader took the next logical step in the political process. It was very clear workers’ problems were mainly emanating from political decisions and hence a permanent solution meant a change of government. Another plus for the opposition leader is that he is a product of political and social movements in the country that thrust him into the role when he himself seemed unwilling. A clear indicator he never deliberately sought power.
Tsvangirai does not seem to need the presidency as desperately as Mugabe needs to keep hanging on to it. His mandate is clear. It’s hard to think of Mugabe outside the presidency since he has lost much of the respect people had for him. Through ruling like a dictator, besieged by imaginary forces while in power, he would just be another has-been outside it. It’s thus easy to see why the current head of state can’t let the word “retirement” part from his lips.
In 1999 the Tsvangirai-led labour body (ZCTU) created the Movement for Democratic Change, a political party meant to challenge Zanu PF in the June 2000 parliamentary election. Just before this election there was the matter of a referendum on a new constitution that deliberately had a clause on seizing white-owned farms without compensation just to ensure a “yes” vote by the majority blacks. The tactic backfired miserably and government lost the referendum in a clear vote of no confidence.
The organisation that led the “no” vote campaign, the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), had Tsvangirai as its founding chairperson. This was the most dramatic political setback for Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF since Independence. A visibly embarrassed and dejected Mugabe appeared on national television to tell the people of Zimbabwe his government would accept the “no” vote. The humility Mugabe displayed on television masked the seething anger he felt and events later showed how he would get his revenge. Revenge-seeking is not a good leadership trait.
In the June 2000 parliamentary election, the MDC won 57 seats compared to Zanu PF’s 62, a major shock considering the MDC was only a few months old. To further highlight the enormity of the victory, the referendum loss had led to the ruling party engaging in unprecedented acts of violence to intimidate the young party’s supporters. Zanu PF had used the referendum as an opinion poll and knew clearly they were heading for defeat if they did not cook the electoral registers and turn up the heat on the opposition.
The Zanu PF media has tried to portray Tsvangirai and his MDC as British-funded puppets eager to reverse the land-grabbing exercise. What shows you this tactic is not working is the regularity with which it is repeated, jingle after jingle. They will never mention how in the presidential election a “puppet” party garnered over 1,2 million votes.
The MDC leader has clearly stated his party’s policy on the land issue is to see an equitable, fair and transparent reform programme. However, those opposed to this apply selective comprehension and tell the electorate the opposition wants to give land back to the British. Their arguments are sometimes so childish you could laugh your head off. But then you begin to realise the majority of their remaining supporters are not so sophisticated and more easily swayed by delivery than by content. This is where you get Mugabe punching the air and swearing by his mother’s grave – he knows his audience.
We are regularly told Tsvangirai has a simple educational background. They will never mention he is a graduate of Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government where he holds a diploma from the school’s Executive Leaders In Development programme. We are also curious as to what Mugabe’s degrees from prison have accomplished besides attracting high degrees of suffering and violence?
Do the millions of Zimbabweans who don’t have degrees represent the unelectable community? Whose standard is it that all world leaders should hold degrees? The best example of education and commonsense being mutually exclusive is Jonathan Moyo whose sole lesson to Zimbabwe is that political opportunism is the fastest route to wealth and power.
The MDC leader turned down the opportunity to contest in the easily won urban constituencies, preferring instead to contest in his rural home of Buhera. Predictably, it was won by Zanu PF courtesy of a violent campaign. This ability to align himself to his grassroots constituency has been overlooked by most commentators who focus on the defeat itself while ignoring his political astuteness in leading by example and not words. Despite his growing stature he remains aligned to his roots.
Tsvangirai’s driver was assassinated by state security agents in a petrol bomb attack on his vehicle while on the campaign trail. One of the alleged killers, Joseph Mwale, is reportedly heavily involved in current “military” operations at Roy Bennett’s Charleswood Estate in Chimanimani.
There have been three assassination attempts on Morgan Tsvangirai so far despite the regime trying to downplay them. Notably 1997 when unknown assailants burst into his office and tried to throw him out of a tenth floor window. If Zanu PF wanted people not to take him seriously they were certainly going about it the wrong way. Their actions clearly announced fear of the inevitable. That he has soldiered on in spite of regular arrests on trumped up charges, harassment and intimidation is a remarkable feat of courage when you consider how fleet-footed others put in similar circumstances have become.
Does a trade union background then ensure someone will become a good leader? The question has no fixed template answer as this depends on the personal attributes of each leader. Former Zambian president, Frederick Chiluba, who ousted Kenneth Kaunda in the 1991 polls is often used as an example by the state media to rubbish the track record of trade unionists who ascend to power. The problem with the analogy is that Chiluba’s MMD grew out of a break up of Kaunda’s governing party while in Zimbabwe the MDC built itself from scratch.
No one can underestimate the enormity of the challenge the MDC leader faces. Every aspect of the political landscape, the media, judiciary, law enforcement, legislation is heavily lopsided in favour of the incumbent. Tsvangirai has come to symbolise the struggle for freedom in Zimbabwe more than those who sought to perpetually feed off the liberation war. Those from the opposite side can bark all they want about puppetry, re-colonisation and sovereignty. The truth I believe is stark naked. Their problem is they want it dressed.
* Lance Guma is a Zimbabwean now living in Glasgow, Scotland.