ZIMBABWEâ€™S opposition leader and President Robert Mugabe set aside years of bitter rivalry and talked like a father and son when they met for a private dinner last month.
Morgan Tsvangirai, who has repeatedly suffered arrest and assault at the hands of Mugabeâ€™s regime, described how the tension disappeared during their first one-on-one meeting following the signing of a memorandum of understanding to negotiate a power-sharing deal between Zanu PF and the two MDC formations on July21.
“A passer-by might have mistaken it for a lost father-son reunion,” said Tsvangirai. “Initially, there was tension between us but as we chatted about this and that and became more relaxed, I discovered that he was a human being after all.”
This private dinner, details of which have never previously been disclosed, followed the public handshake between Tsvangirai and Mugabe in Harare.
Only weeks earlier, scores of opposition supporters had been murdered and thousands assaulted or tortured during a bloody presidential election campaign.
But in an exclusive interview, Tsvangirai said these traumatic events did not come between him and the 84-year-old president. “We chatted about family, about my mother, as well as about politics and the talks. Mugabe ate a lot and knew exactly what he wanted. He is very alert mentally but, physically, the age is telling.”
Tsvangirai said it would be “unfair” to reveal the political details of 90-minute dinner with Mugabe. But he said the ageing leader was concerned about his place in history and genuinely worried about Britainâ€™s alleged plots to oust him â€“â€“ a constant feature of his speeches.
“I got the impression that he has a deep commitment to his legacy. I realised that he actually believes a lot of what he is saying; itâ€™s not all said just for propaganda purposes. He is paranoid about the British. I think overall he wants to prove to them that he is right,” said Tsvangirai.
As for the British government, Tsvangirai discovered that Mugabe views (prime minister) Gordon Brown as an even more dedicated opponent than Tony Blair. “I said, â€˜Why donâ€™t you talk to them?â€™ And he said, â€˜Well, you know, Blair was bad enough but this Brown, he is even worseâ€™.”
Mugabeâ€™s regime has been responsible for thousands of deaths since he won power 28 years ago. But the old leader appeared genuinely pained about how he is portrayed.
“At one point Mugabe told me, â€˜You know, some people say Iâ€™m a murderer. But Iâ€™m not. Let the two of us carry on eating together and showing that we can go forward in peaceâ€™,” said Tsvangirai.
But Mugabe seemed to have blanked out the violence which scarred the presidential election campaign and was firmly in denial about his own responsibility.
“It felt like a remarkably normal conversation most of the time, apart from his denial of the violence in Zimbabwe,” said Tsvangirai. “He seemed to be unaware or he feigned ignorance of the atrocities committed by his own people.
“I wondered if he was suppressing knowledge of something he was not comfortable with. Right up to the end of the dinner, I kept coming back to the issue of violence and he kept denying any knowledge of it.”
Only a week after this meeting, however, Mugabe gave a very different message. During the annual ceremony remembering the dead of the war against white rule, Mugabe said: “We used violence to defend what is ours.”
Tsvangirai remains puzzled by the presidentâ€™s capacity for double-think and denial.
“I left the hotel wondering why Mugabe is so violent. Why does he resort to violence whenever he is cornered? Being in his company, I couldnâ€™t imagine where the violent streak was: I think he suppresses it, even to himself. Or is it the people around him? He doesnâ€™t seem as bad when youâ€™re with him, but I know he was trying to manipulate me that night.”
Despite this friendly meeting, Tsvangirai later refused to sign a power-sharing deal that would have left Mugabe in command of Zimbabweâ€™s government. But he said he felt “no sense of bitterness,” adding: “I actually have to admit that I have some respect for Mugabe, who used to be my hero.”
By Heidi HollandÂ : the author of Dinner with Mugabe, published by Penguin Books.