He addressed the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions on Workers’ Day. Tsvangirai told workers that his unity government was sympathetic to their plight.
He more than any other politician should have known all ears would be listening keenly. Here was the premier with more than a year in the unity government speaking on issues affecting the common man.
Tsvangirai declared: “There is no government policy on wage freeze. If ever there is going to be such a policy, it must also take into consideration the price freeze.”
Underpaid government employees — by far the largest group of workers in the country — were left confused by Tsvangirai’s declaration that salaries of civil servants had not been frozen.
Finance minister Tendai Biti, a senior member of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, last month announced a freeze on all salaries for government workers. They presently earn between $150 and $250 a month.
Could it have escaped Tsvangirai that a senior colleague in his party and government had said exactly the opposite a few days earlier?
Biti had explained that the wage bill for civil servants was taking up “70%” of the unity government’s rather limited revenue.
Both men, Biti and Tsvangirai, belong to the same teams in government and in politics.
Therein lies the problem.
Was Tsvangirai just being nice to his hosts by telling them their depressed salaries could be raised even though his colleague Biti said this was practically impossible?
Understandably, the state-owned media latched onto the anomaly and claimed the MDC was heading for another split.
With talk of a possible election next year, any MDC split — real or imagined — would bring a measure of comfort to President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF party — via of course the state-owned newspapers, radio and television.
It was right Tsvangirai made a public declaration that his relations with Biti were as good as
ever and the internal strife in his MDC party was being probed with an intention to deal with the problem.
Besides, in a proper democracy different interpretations of the same event are not necessarily taboo or a sign of anarchy.
Biti was obviously speaking as a government official privy to the meagre contents of the national purse when he announced the “wage freeze”. Biti also gave a proviso that the situation could be reviewed once government revenues improved.
The fact that this week Biti sat next to Tsvangirai while he explained that there was no rift between them seemed to escape the jaundiced eye of the state-owned media.
It is common practice for politicians all over the world to speak their minds when they are addressing specific audiences — the devil always remains in the detail.
If Tsvangirai was speaking to ZCTU members as president of the MDC he should be given room to express his party’s position — even if it seems contrary to the position stated by government.
Biti’s wage freeze pronouncement was made after it had been reportedly tabled in cabinet making it a government matter.
Right thinking citizens do not expect the Finance minister to spend all the government’s money on paying civil servants, many of whom behave as if the people they serve are their servants.
This storm in a teacup offers ordinary citizens an opportunity to see how party politics can be different from government policy.
In other words the unity government may have policies designed and forced onto the public by the stronger party, which has ruled over Zimbabwe for three decades.
By extension the MDC cannot always be in sync with the shared government it belongs to.
Only when the MDC has achieved equal power in the unity government can we expect to hold Tsvangirai to account for every government policy.