TRADE unionism has been a springboard to jump into the world of politics. Examples include names like Lech Walesa of Poland, former Zambian head of state Frederick Chiluba and many politicians wh
o started their political careers in welfare societies.
Despite this legacy, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai, despite enjoying wide popularity in Zimbabwe, seems to be facing several hurdles in his long walk to plot one because of President Robert Mugabe’s maverick yet enviable governance.
Mugabe has shown the world that he is among the remnants of African leaders who can tell off Western leaders who were trying to meddle in African affairs with their arrogance and know-it-all stance.
Tsvangirai, who has been labelled a puppet and an Uncle Tom, seems to be finding problems in matching Uncle Bob who does not mince his words regardless of who crosses his path, be it American President George Bush, whom he has accused of playing God or British Prime Minister Tony Blair who Mugabe calls a crony and labelled him Bush’s prophet.
However, the wind of change seems to be blowing in the land of the great Zimbabwe ruins with some people calling for change in a country that is now fraught with economic woes largely brought about by sanctions and the mass dismissal of white farmers in the infamous land reforms.
Many white farmers whose land has been grabbed owned the country’s best land as was the case in Uganda where many Asians controlled Uganda’s economy before Idi Amin’s dictactorial rule.
According to Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) national secretary Vernon Mwaanga, Tsvangirai is visiting Zambia with a four-man MDC delegation after the Zambian government accepted his party’s request to visit the country for consultative talks this week.
“The MMD looks forward to having fruitful discussions particularly when it’s them that have requested to meet the ruling party here. Zimbabwe is an important neighbour in many aspects so it would be imperative and interesting to know what was happening in that country,” he said.
Tsvangirai this week met President Levy Mwanawasa at Zambia’s State House. Because of the sour relationship between Zimbabwe and Zambia in the second republic and the Chiluba-run MMD, the New Deal Government has informed the Zimbabwean authorities and ambassador in Zambia about Tsvangirai’s visit.
The MDC would be visiting several other Southern African Development Community countries on various issues in preparation for the parliamentary elections in March that would see Mugabe and Tsvangirai’s parties battle it out to determine who would rule the country.
Last year, the MMD and Unip sent a team each to attend Zanu PF’s congress attended by 11 000 delegates.
“We’ll do the listening and less talking but we will issue a press statement possibly after our meetings with the MDC,” Mwaanga said.
Who is Morgan Tsvangirai? Because of his strident condemnation of Mugabe’s land grabbing policy, the Western press, especially the British media, has over-praised Tsvangirai, hailing him as a self-made person, a solid administrator, competent thinker, charismatic leader, democratic team player and, above all, a compassionate family man.
“He has an unshakable appreciation of the key challenges facing Zimbabwe as a country and Zimbabweans as a people. Tsvangirai is a product of important social movements in this country, which include the labour and constitutional reform movements,” said the BBC in an article on Tsvangirai.
Whether the MDC leader is all these is debatable. But what is true is that Tsvangirai has been a leader to reckon with for some time.
He is the former secretary-general of the powerful Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and is the founding chairperson of the National Constitutional Assembly, a group that advocates a new constitution for the country.
Like Chiluba who ran the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions for 17 years while Kaunda remained at the helm of Unip and the government condemning the one-party system for the suffering of workers, Tsvangirai has been a thorn in the flesh of Mugabe’s Zanu PF.
Tsvangirai is a graduate of Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government, where he attained a diploma from the school’s Executive Leaders in Development Programme in June 2001.
Apart from this academic attainment, Tsvangirai like Chiluba can be described as a leader with humble education but very vast knowledge of what affects his society and a born leader who is keen to learn new things.
Tsvangirai, who is the first child in a family of nine, was born in 1952 in Buhera and attended Munyira primary school and then Silveira and Gokomere high schools.
His father was a bricklayer who had to struggle to put food on the table for the large family. This forced young Morgan to leave school after GCE O Levels to help support his family.
At 20, he was working at Mutare Clothing as a textile weaver where he had his first taste of trade unionism as a member of the local textile union.
Two years later he joined the Trojan Nickel Mine in Bindura. He spent 10 years at the mine, rising from plant operator to general foreman.
Tsvangirai became branch chairman of the Associated Mine Workers Union and was later elected into the executive of the National Mine Workers Union before becoming secretary-general of the ZCTU in 1988.
Tsvangirai has also held several high-ranking positions in many regional labour movements.
He has also been a guest speaker and presenter at various conferences including at the World Trade Forum, trade union-related forums and both non-governmental and government-organised seminars.
Like Chiluba, he is an eloquent speaker who can sway a crowd with his oratory skills. He is also a multi-talented person and displays an amazing amount of energy, which drives his hard work.
From the time Tsvangirai led the ZCTU away from its alliance with the ruling Zanu PF, souring the union’s relationship with the government, up to 1989 when he was imprisoned for six weeks on charges of being a South African spy, his experience can still be compared to Chiluba’s who was also imprisoned by the Kaunda government.
In the late 1980s, Tsvangirai used the ZCTU which had been formed at Zimbabwe’s Independence as a springboard for his political career a decade later.
In December 1997 and early 1998, Tsvangirai led a series of strikes —the so-called “stayaways” — against tax increases which brought the country to a standstill.
These forced the government of Mugabe to cancel two tax increases and, as it turned out, also to abandon a promised tax to help fund war veterans’ pensions.
This was an ironic foreshadowing of the political confrontation between the veterans and Tsvangirai’s supporters over the issue of farm occupations.
He has also been a victim of premeditated and government-inspired harassment and violence.
There have been three assassination attempts on his life, which include the 1997 attempt, where unknown assailants burst into his office and tried to throw him out of a 10th storey window.
Tsvangirai has been married to his wife Susan since 1978. They have six children. Their eldest son is 22 years old and the youngest are twins who are eight years of age.
When not in the office or out meeting people, Tsvangirai likes to read and spend time with his family.
Tsvangirai is seen as representing a younger generation of Zimbabweans, particularly urban workers, who are less interested in Mugabe’s historical role as the country’s founding father than what they see as his recent record of economic mismanagement.
Zimbabwe’s economy has continued performing poorly, a situation Tsvangirai’s MDC is harping on by promising citizens that things would improve when his party takes over from the ruling Zanu PF.
However, some Zimbabweans still consider Mugabe to be a hero for removing the government of Ian Douglas Smith and grabbing land from whites in what could have been another Chimurenga revolution.
Only time will tell if Morgan Tsvangirai will one day be Zimbabwe’s next president.
*The Times of Zambia.