Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tsvangirai Now a Man of the Past

Its seems unlikely that he can ever regain the support he enjoyed when he launched his party seven years ago.
When Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, party was launched 100 kilometres away from the capital, Harare, in the small farming town of Banket in Mashonaland West district in September 1999, Zimbabwe was gripped by a fever.

Nothing like it had happened since the demise of previous attempts at opposition politics like the Zimbabwe Unity Movement in 1990, the Forum Party of Zimbabwe three years later and the Zimbabwe Union of Democrats in 1995.

The MDC launch was attended by hundreds of white commercial farmers from across the country, but especially Mashonaland West province, the grain heartland. This was unprecedented in the politics of Zimbabwe where whites had always taken a back seat, preferring instead to focus on the engine of the economy - farming.

The MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had become a hero, easily rivalling President Robert Mugabe, after he led demonstrations, as secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, in 1998 for electoral reform and against soaring food prices and unpopular tax increases. The government was forced to backtrack on its proposed tax hikes.

The MDC's instant popularity was on the back of protest against economic decline which had caused massive job losses for workers who constituted the backbone of Tsvangirai’s labour movement. The ruling ZANU PF party was blamed for precipitating the decline and being unable to halt it. People were in a mood for a revolt and the MDC provided an immediate outlet.

It was also fortuitous that the formation of the MDC coincided with the launch of the independent and highly professional Daily News as the main challenge to government’s media monopoly. The Daily News quickly became the voice of the opposition. Through the newspaper's columns, the MDC was able to marshal support against a proposed new constitution which, according to its opponents, conferred too much power on President Mugabe and legitimised the seizure of white commercial farms without compensation.

The proposed constitution was overwhelmingly rejected in a referendum in February 2000 and Tsvangirai grew in stature. The MDC was on a roll. Mugabe's black opponents and whites alike were ecstatic. Mugabe was stunned. It was the first time in twenty years that he had been defeated in a popular vote. He acknowledged the defeat in a terse statement on national television and said people “had exercised their democratic right”.

"The world now knows Zimbabwe as that country where opposing views can file so singly and so peacefully to and from the booth without incident ... May I also make special mention of the white part of our community who this time around sloughed off apathy to participate vigorously in the whole poll," he went on.

But veteran Africa foreign correspondent Martin Meredith, now a fellow at St Anthony's College, Oxford, noted in Robert Mugabe: Power, Plunder and Tyranny in Zimbabwe, his biography of Zimbabwe's head of state, "These fine words concealed an inner rage at what had happened.

"Mugabe attributed his defeat principally to the whites and was determined to make them pay for it. At an emergency meeting of ZANU PF's central committee on 18 February, three days after the results of the referendum were announced, there were recriminations all round. The ruling elite had suddenly seen their grip on power slipping and with it all the wealth, the salaries, the perks, contracts, commissions and scams they had enjoyed for twenty years."

In that apparent referendum success also lay the source of the MDC’s future destruction and its current malaise.

What followed was a catastrophe beyond everybody’s imagination which blighted Zimbabwe’s human rights record and led to the country's economic collapse and current pariah status in the international community.

Mugabe launched a brutal campaign of terror across the country that only the Ndebele people of Matabeleland and Midlands had experienced before, during the mass killings by Mugabe's personal North Korean-trained 5th Brigade in 1983-86 - commonly referred to as Gukurahundi, a Shona word meaning "the early strong rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains". In the Gukurahundi, the 5th Brigade, made up entirely of men from Mugabe's own Shona people, massacred some 20,000 villagers and tortured and maimed countless others.

In his 2000 terror operation, Mugabe had two targets - black supporters of the MDC and white farmers. The army, police, veterans of Zimbabwe’s independence war and ZANU PF party militia formed the spearhead of this campaign to “politically reorientate” people who had “strayed” from ZANU PF and to punish whites who had dared to question ZANU PF's right to rule.

The MDC immediately became an enemy organisation and its officials and candidates faced acute danger. A ZANU PF gang in Buhera, about 170 kilometres south of Harare, allegedly ambushed a car driven by Morgan Tsvangirai's driver, Tichaona Chiminya, setting it on fire. Chiminya and a colleague, Talent Mabika, were burned to death. Although their attackers were well-known, no action was taken against them.

In Bulawayo, an MDC agent, Patrick Nabanyama, was allegedly abducted by Mugabe supporters and never seen again. He is presumed to have been murdered.

In Rushinga district, a mob of armed ZANU PF supporters reportedly descended on Nyaktondo village, 350 km northeast of Harare, looking for MDC parliamentary candidate Elliot Pfebve. Failing to find him, they are said to have abducted his brother and father: his brother was killed, his father severely wounded.

In a carefully coordinated campaign beginning on February 26, 2000, ZANU PF gangs armed with axes and pangas invaded white-owned farms across the country. Army trucks were used to transport them to the farms and keep them supplied with food rations. They were called veterans of the 1970s war of liberation, but the majority were too young to have participated in the pre-independence war twenty years earlier.

Their purported task was to peg out plots of land for redistribution to landless peasants. But Mugabe's wider purpose for them was to crush support for the opposition in the run-up to a parliamentary election in June 2000.

The first white farmer to die was David Stevens, a prominent 47-year-old farmer in Macheke, 110 km southeast of Harare, and an MDC organiser. "War veterans" allegedly attacked Stevens' farm, beat him about the head and tied his hands behind his back with wire. He was taken into the bush, where he and his foreman, Julius Andoche, were killed.

The MDC, overwhelmingly black, was accused by Mugabe of trying to give the country back to former white colonisers. News film of white commercial farmers signing cheques at the launch of the MDC in Banket were played over and over again on government-owned national television to stress the point.

Teachers in rural areas and farm workers became the prime target of assault because they were seen as highly committed agents of the MDC who were accused of making their pupils chant MDC slogans. Ruling party thugs invaded primary and secondary schools, harassing and abusing teachers in front of pupils. Some were beaten and some were taken away to ZANU PF "re-education camps". Martin Meredith wrote, "Hundreds of teachers in rural areas abandoned their schools and fled to nearby towns for safety. By late May [2000], some 7000 teachers had deserted, forcing 250 primary and secondary schools to close."

It became suicidal to be seen putting on MDC regalia or reading the Daily News.

Hundreds of thousands of black farm workers were also targeted because they stood by their employers against the unplanned and unstructured onslaught on commercial farms described by Mugabe as the "Third Chimurenga" or fast-track land reform.

Chimurenga is a word that translates from the Shona language as "struggle". The Shona identify three periods of chimurenga in their history. The First Chimurenga refers to the 1896-1897 Shona revolt against colonial rule by the British South Africa Company. The Second Chimurenga refers to the guerrilla war of 1972-1980, which led to the end of white minority rule in Rhodesia and to the independence of Zimbabwe. Mugabe defined his expropriation of white-owned farms as the Third Chimurenga.

Together with their wives, farm workers constituted fifteen per cent of the electorate. To Mugabe they were as much part of the "enemy" as white farmers. On one farm after another, the labourers and their families were subjected to violence and intimidation by war veteran gangs acting with impunity. Human rights organisations recorded thousands of incidents as workers were kicked and whipped. Men were abducted and their women raped: their homes were destroyed and their property looted.

Several farms were turned into "re-education centres" after the white owners had been driven off. "Using convoys of stolen trucks, tractors and trailers, war veterans rounded up workers en masse, taking them for indoctrination sessions lasting sometimes for days," wrote Martin Meredith. "Lists of workers said to be MDC supporters were read out before large gatherings, then the individuals named were hustled to the front to be beaten and whipped."

Communal areas, where the majority of Zimbabwe's rural people live, were declared “no-go areas” for the opposition. War veterans set up torture camps across the country where villagers spent the night chanting ZANU PF slogans and denouncing the MDC and its supporters who were routinely beaten, tortured or killed. White farmers were sometimes required to attend sessions and join in songs and dances to provide a "good example" to their workers.

The MDC was banned in all but name. But despite the blanket intimidation it still notched an unprecedented and astonishing 57 seats against the ruling party's 63 in the June 2000 parliamentary election, widely alleged to have been rigged to deny the MDC governmental power.

But history demonstrates that the MDC had reached the peak of its popularity and from then on it was downhill all the way. Two years later, Mugabe managed to win a presidential poll with 56 per cent of the vote in another election marred by widespread violence and allegations of fraud. Some 200 opposition activists and supporters were killed in the course of the electoral campaign.

Tsvangirai’s leadership shortcomings began to manifest themselves more clearly. He described his loss in the presidential election as “daylight robbery”, but was unable to lead shocked Zimbabweans into protest marches. The indecision displayed by the MDC leadership then has become its hallmark and has led to deep and widespread frustration among its activists and former supporters.

In parliamentary elections in March 2005, the party saw its tally of seats fall to 41 against ZANU PF’s comfortable 78.

Under the weight of its own lethargy, the MDC split into two factions in October 2005 over leadership and policy differences. The factions began attacking each other with more vigour than they criticised Mugabe and his government.

Tsvangirai increasingly demonstrated that he lacked political savvy. Time after time, he was found wanting when his leadership was needed most. In 2003, he promised to lead street protests against Mugabe in a show of people power in what he called the “final push”. He made clear that he expected "the masses" to lead the street demonstrations while the MDC leaders followed. Inevitably, he failed to mobilise the necessary critical mass to carry through his threat.

He has also vacillated at critical moments about whether to take part in elections or boycott them. That was partly the reason the MDC lost the 2005 election by such a huge margin and led to its split. Tsvangirai had announced the MDC would participate only a month before the vote.

Last year, Tsvangirai promised a restless and oppressed nation “a winter of discontent and democratic resistance” which never materialised. In a recent interview, he said he had been speaking only in metaphor and that his words were taken out of context.

Yet again, in 2007, Tsvangirai is talking of "mobilising the people to resolve the national crisis" and of launching "a campaign that will ensure that the ZANU PF project collapses". Sadly, large numbers of people who once admired Tsvangirai and were waiting to be led no longer take him seriously. They are unwilling to take to the streets under his banner.

“Tsvangirai has lost credibility and he has no one to blame but himself,” one political analyst told IWPR. “In politics it is dangerous to make promises you can’t fulfill, especially if you are in opposition. People begin to doubt everything you say.”

He said it is unlikely Tsvangirai can ever regain the support he enjoyed when he launched the party seven years ago. “People have become disillusioned over the years. They have been waiting for change for far too long and, in spite of its own internal problems, ZANU PF seems to be more organised while the MDC appears to be getting weaker.”

Another analyst said Tsvangirai had missed clear opportunities to give direction to the people when some one million were displaced and had their homes destroyed under the government’s widely condemned Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Clean Out the Trash) in May and June 2005. “There was yet another lost opportunity for leadership when [Reserve Bank Governor Gideon] Gono launched Project Sunrise [in which people in possession of large sums of near-valueless Zimbabwe dollars were arrested and had their money confiscated following the revaluation of the local currency] in August last year in which hundreds of people lost their money overnight,” said the analyst.

The analyst concluded, “The trouble is that Zimbabweans are so desperate for change they will cling on to the coattails of anyone who promises change. But Tsvangirai has become a man of the past just like President Mugabe. What support he still retains is for what he did in the past than what he can still do in future.

“Mugabe's biggest enemy now, his unending nightmare, is the economy that keeps getting worse, with inflation at 1600 per cent and set to rise within months to 4000 per cent according to the International Monetary Fund. He has stopped worrying about Tsvangirai as a leader.”

Tari Ziyambe is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.