As I embarked on the autobiography of Zimbabwe’s doughty opposition leader, I found myself thinking with some sympathy of the political correspondent cadre in Washington DC. This is, after all, the time in the US political calendar when a deluge of weighty memoirs and manifestos appears in the names of all those dreaming of living in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They tend to be turgid, vapid and rapidly pulped but, for a few months, have to be kept and thumbed through, just in case …
At the Deep End does share some of these traits. It is too long. Why do so many politicians – and this applies to Americans and Europeans as much as Morgan Tsvangirai – think they have to match the length of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom? (Why, too, do editors so often seem to forget that excellent maxim: less is more?) This book is also too detailed in places and at times is, frankly, dull. Tsvangirai, an immensely brave former trade unionist, who is now prime minister in an unhappy cohabitation with Robert Mugabe, has for 12 years led an extraordinary fight against one of the more destructive autocrats of recent decades. So when reading this, all but Zimbabwean cognoscenti may at times find themselves aching for more of that drama and less of the political process and internal dynamics of his party, the Movement for Democratic Change.
And yet this is far more important than most US candidates’ books. Despite endless setbacks, there is a good chance that the bluff Tsvangirai will in a few years at most be Zimbabwe’s president. After more than three decades in power, Mugabe, 87, is at last showing signs of his age. This emerges clearly in one of the more compelling sections of the book, an account of a 2008 meeting between Tsvangirai and his adversary, the first in a decade. “I was shocked to see a frail senior citizen huddled on a chair at a corner table … He stared at me with an ashen face … ”
For a full picture of the MDC leader, the world needs a searching biography to complement his own account. But in the meantime, notwithstanding the inevitable elisions, there is much here that rings true and gives us insight into the author. And who will not be moved by his agony over the death of his wife in a car crash, one of the few passages written with genuine emotion?
Rather endearingly, he admits to many periods of self-doubt. He betrays a sensitivity over his lack of a tertiary education and a suspicion of some of his clever-dick colleagues. He, after all, grew up in genuine rural poverty and lacked the middle-class upbringing and university degrees that helped to equip so many liberation leaders to take charge of their countries. (Such advantages, as Tsvangirai archly and rightly suggests, hardly guaranteed a successful career in politics.) His focus on relatively minor confrontations with Rhodesian officials when he was young reflects a prickliness over Mugabe’s insinuations that he was a sell-out for not fighting in the liberation war. Also, his interpretation of misunderstandings he has had with some senior white lieutenants of the MDC serves as a reminder, if one were needed, of the country’s continuing racial sensitivities. All this will be worth bearing in mind if he does rise to the presidency.
As important as these insights – both deliberate and inadvertent – is the accumulation of damning material about Mugabe’s rule. When “Uncle Bob” steps down or dies, there will be a tendency to divide his era in two, and to view his first decade in power through rose-tinted spectacles. Tsvangirai’s recollections of the early years of rule by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party make clear that it was enriching itself and undermining the state from day one. His chapters on the past decade, and these past two years in coalition, are a chilling indictment of the ruthlessness of the securocrats behind Mugabe – and of the terrible price Tsvangirai and his followers have paid for challenging him.
I longed for more crisp judgments but, then again, they might not have read authentically. The former mineworker is, after all, of the Lech Walesa rather than the Machiavelli school of politics. He cites the unhappy precedent of Frederick Chiluba, the Zambian union leader who rose to the presidency and left it in disgrace. “We watched carefully and picked up valuable pointers,” he writes.
This book makes very clear that Tsvangirai has long since earned the right to govern Zimbabwe. As his country moves closer to the post-Mugabe era, world and, in particular, regional leaders must do their utmost to ensure that hardliners do not upset the transition and keep him from power – and then they must pray that he has, as he asserts, taken Chiluba’s cautionary tale to heart.
Alec Russell is the FT’s comment editor and a former southern Africa correspondent
At the Deep End, by Morgan Tsvangirai and T William Bango, Eye Books, RRP£20, 563 pages