Dinner with the FT: Morgan Tsvangirai

One moment all we can hear are the cicadas, the next the quiet Harare evening is broken by the sound of a rapidly accelerating engine. The security guard outside the Zimbabwean prime minister’s residence turns quickly as a car appears at the end of the road. He peers through the gloaming and speaks urgently into his phone. Then he relaxes. It is the prime minister’s spokesman, Luke. Paranoia? Probably. Then again, where else in the world can you arrive, having flown thousands of miles to speak to a prime minister, and yet be advised by government insiders that it may be best not to tell police or immigration the reason for your visit?

Luke is wiry, besuited ­and angry. He has spent much of the day in court, where dozens of activists were facing treason charges for having watched video footage of the Egyptian democracy protests. In Zimbabwe this is a capital offence. The activists’ lawyer says they have been badly beaten in prison. It seems clear that if there is one person who definitely won’t be popping round to join Luke’s boss, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, and me tonight, it is his partner in government since 2009, that veteran African autocrat, President Robert Mugabe.

I wait in his garden, relishing the cool air after an afternoon rainstorm. In a continent where political power all too often leads to Croesan wealth, Tsvangirai’s home in Strathaven, one of Harare’s northern suburbs, has a modest feel – though I later learn he is having a big new house renovated in another part of the city. A colonial-style bungalow, it is one of thousands of unassuming family homes favoured by mid-level civil servants in the days of white-run Rhodesia. Only a dilapidated sentry post inside the gate signifies the occupant’s status. Clearly neither the Irish street names nor the road surfaces have been changed since independence in 1980.

I have come to see Tsvangirai over “sundowners”, that ritual of the African safari: the serving of drinks at the close of the day. My ambition of dinner at Meikles, the gloomy old colonial hotel in the centre of town, or maybe the Harare Club, has had to die. Dinner was at the last minute impossible in these frenetic times. It is not just that after two years of a relative truce between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, whose ruinous three decades in power had devastated the economy, and Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, Mugabe’s thugs are intimidating voters again ahead of a possible mid-year snap election. Tsvangirai, a dogged battler through a decade in opposition, is facing increasing questions in the press, and not just the pro-Mugabe state media, about his private life – and, from some in his own party, suggestions that he is not up to the job of prime minister.

One of the prime minister’s younger brothers emerges from the tin-roofed outhouse that is his private office. "He is bearing up," he says. “But he needs support, spiritual and moral as well as political.”

When I first visited Tsvangirai’s home three years ago, it was at an electrifying time, just days before the 2008 elections. As leader of the MDC opposition, the bluff ex-union leader seemed to have Mugabe on the run. We ate a snatched lunch of sandwiches on the campaign trail – which was probably all to the good, as if we had opted for a formal Lunch with the FT I would have needed a satchel of banknotes. Those were the days of 100,000 per cent inflation and billion-dollar notes, when the price of drinks could and did change between courses.

It is a sign of the times that you no longer need your calculators to go for lunch in Harare. Just over two years ago, shortly before the coalition government was sworn into office as part of a regional deal to end months of impasse, the Zimbabwe dollar was abolished in favour of the greenback. To the delight of business, the world’s second-worst recorded hyperinflation in a century is over. (The worst, according to Steve Hanke at the Cato Institute, was Hungary in July 1946, not Weimar Germany.) After a decade of freefall, the economy is at last growing. And yet Zimbabwe is far from out of the abyss.

As I settle back in Tsvangirai’s office, my eye is caught by an old 2008 election poster leaning against the wall. It shows him smiling, relaxed, exuding vigour and fire. We begin by reminiscing about a barnstorming trip together to a Zanu-PF heartland when we met a rapturous welcome in a hitherto no-go zone for the MDC. He relaxes into his seat. On the table in front of him are an iPad and a copy of Tony Blair’s recent memoir A Journey. We share our experiences as Apple newcomers and trade impressions on the lessons of the former British prime minister. “Politics is the same the world over,” Tsvangirai chuckles. Blair’s relationship with Gordon Brown, his chancellor of the exchequer and successor as premier, was indeed poisonous. But they were as blood brothers when compared to Zimbabwe’s president and PM.

He has spent most of the day at the Tuesday cabinet meeting. There he has to sit alongside Mugabe, whose supporters have spent a decade trying to crush the MDC. It must have been difficult, I say. He beams. “It was very good, very productive ... It’s enlightening that everyone was serious about addressing the concerns.”

I raise my eyebrows. But are you not old enemies? Tsvangirai beams again. “If you were to enter the room you would not know who was who, MDC or Zanu-PF. The seating is Zanu-PF, MDC, Zanu-PF, MDC ... and he [Mugabe] and I direct. We really do consult when things get out of hand.”

The Zanu-PF lion lying down with the MDC sheep: it is a charming vision of reconciliation but utterly unconvincing. Mugabe may have celebrated his 87th birthday a week before my visit but all the talk in Harare is that he is running rings around his 59-year-old prime minister – just as he outmanoeuvred other rivals, such as Joshua Nkomo, once they decided to stop opposing him and instead to share power. So I am all but lost for words at Tsvangirai’s Milquetoast reference to his and Mugabe’s latest meeting – as, I have been told, was David Cameron when he was given a similarly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed account by Tsvangirai at Davos earlier this year.

I relay instead that I had lunch that day with an MDC-supporting Zimbabwean businessman who had said gloomily that if there were a free election the MDC would win 90 per cent of the vote – but that there would never be a free vote.

“No, no, no, that’s rather pessimistic,” Tsvangirai insists. He cites the role of regional bodies, which will in theory police the next election. I point out the craven stance of most regional leaders towards Mugabe when he bullied his and his party’s way to re-election in four elections between 2000 and 2008.

“I know people are sceptical because we have had so many experiences of violence at elections before,” he says. “But I have never given up hope. People may want to see instant change, like instant coffee, but we have chosen the evolutionary path not the revolutionary path and evolution is sometimes disappointing because it is slow.”

An aide knocks on the door bearing a tray of drinks. The prime minister and I opt for Coke. Luke has a Sprite. These are clearly the tipples of choice in the coalition – I was to drink Coke with a Zanu-PF minister the following night. The days of gin and tonics on the prime ministerial stoep finished 30 years ago, with the end of white rule. We raise our glasses in toast. At a time of crumbling dynasties elsewhere, I ask, why has there been no revolution in Zimbabwe? Surely MDC supporters think the coalition government was a mistake? His answer is clear: Zimbabwe had its war of independence, so better negotiations than war.

“We said back in 2005 we are going to drag Mugabe to the negotiating table for a transitional government, a new constitution and an election. That’s the path we defined and I don’t think we are off it ... In the past two years it is a miracle what we have achieved.” Then again, he adds: “I can’t even predict what will happen tomorrow. Suppose people wake tomorrow and say they don’t want this.”

So what are we to make of the “old man” I ask? Over a decade the boot-boys of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF have killed hundreds of MDC supporters. Tsvangirai himself was viciously beaten four years ago, just a day after I had shared dinner with him. How does he judge Mugabe after seeing him so often at close quarters? 

“I used to think he is callous and all that,” he says. “But you know what? He’s human after all. He’s very humane. There is a split personality between Mugabe the [revolutionary] hero and Mugabe the villain ... ”

I fear I am going to struggle to elicit an insightful word about one of the world’s more notorious leaders but he allows himself the tiniest bit of mischief-making at the president’s expense. “If you confront him, he tends to close his mind and to say ‘I’m not guilty of violence. I’m not guilty of this. I’m not guilty … ” He and Luke laugh. I am reminded of an account of a recent meeting when Tsvangirai and his ebullient finance minister, Tendai Biti, were supposed to have insisted that the cabinet had to discuss the upsurge in violence. Mugabe nodded sombrely and told them it should be aired later in the meeting ­– and then skipped out of the room before it could come up, pleading tiredness.

So, how is Mugabe’s stamina, I ask – there is endless speculation that he has advanced prostate cancer. I recall how on meeting the president back in 1994 he answered questions with wit and verve. As for the cut and thrust of conversation, is he still as sharp as ever?

“Yes, when he’s alert ... not when he’s sleeping ... ”

Does Mugabe sometimes doze off in cabinet? The prime minister clearly feels he has said enough and leaves my question hanging. We turn to more concrete matters. Mugabe is promoting a long-mooted law which will force foreign businesses to give a 51 per cent stake to “indigenous” business people. Investors are appalled, fearing this is the equivalent of the forced expropriations of Zimbabwe’s white-owned farms at the turn of the century. Tsvangirai is clear. Black Zimbabweans must be “empowered” but not in this way. “We don’t support grabbing people’s property. The 51 per cent figure was a mistake. Who is going to come [and invest] if we do this?”

He also argues cogently that the international sanctions on Mugabe and his elite should be removed, on the grounds that the president has seized on them as his most powerful political argument. As so often in his career, he has whipped up nationalism and is inflaming rallies with his claim that he is the victim of persecution by the imperialist west.

“We are in a vicious position. We want the sanctions removed but Zanu-PF is doing everything to ensure they are retained,” he says. He is less convincing, however, on the other great political scandal: the apparent theft by state officials of tens of millions of dollars in taxes from Zimbabwe’s diamond fields. He pledges an audit and transparency. Fine words, I think, but who will bring the Zanu-PF culprits to book?

His mobile phone barely stops ringing. When one of his daughters calls, I am reminded of the reaction of a friend in Britain when she heard I was going to see Tsvangirai. Her eyes filled with tears and she recalled how his wife Susan, mother of their six children, was killed in a car crash in March 2009, a month into the new government, and how just weeks later a three-year-old grandson died in the swimming pool in his garden. Tsvangirai seems almost surprised that I relay her response. He cannot be accused of Blairite or Clinton-style emoting. “It had a big impact ... but eventually you move on,” is all he says.

The sun has long since set. We repair to the washroom, which has the brightest lighting, for a photograph. The prime minister’s golf clubs lean against the wall. They have become a leitmotif for his MDC critics, who mutter he spends more time playing golf than fighting the good fight. Some party insiders echo the assessment of a former US ambassador, published on WikiLeaks, that Tsvangirai has “questionable judgment”. Then there is the speculation about his private life. On the day we meet, one of the local newspapers has as its front-page headline: “Tsvangirai fathered my child.” The accusation was at first denied but there has since been an out-of-court settlement. There have been other allegations but he is talking about revolutions and tyranny and I don’t interrupt.

In his office is another poster – this one of Nelson Mandela. The great statesman is smiling beneath the slogan: “There is no easy walk to freedom.” Tsvangirai is no Mandela. A better analogy is Lech Walesa, the Polish union leader whose finest days were in opposition and who proved rather better at rousing rallies than the subtleties of government.

I have over the years had a clandestine breakfast with Tsvangirai, dinner in a Johannesburg ballroom and now drinks, but still no formal lunch. It would signal a fairytale ending to his career if that lunch were to occur in the presidential palace. But he is up against one of the canniest and most ruthless politicians of our time. The chances of this happening seem as remote as ever – and may never come.

Alec Russell is the FT’s comment and analysis editor

Morgan Tsvangirai’s home

Strathaven, Harare

Coke US$1

Sprite $1

(Return flight from London to Harare, £950)

Alec Russell on Zimbabwe’s odd couple

Morgan Tsvangirai has surely the hardest prime ministerial job in the world. He has to work alongside one of the last of Africa’s “Big Men”, the continent’s independence-era autocrats who saw themselves as the embodiment of their nations and assumed they could do no wrong. Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, openly despises his younger, less well-educated premier.

Mugabe has led Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. After being hailed early on for his reconciliatory stance and investment in health and education, in the past decade he has become notorious in the west for repression of a nascent opposition and ruinous economic policies.

In many quarters in Africa he still commands respect as one of the last independence heroes. Born in 1924, educated by Jesuits and the holder of at least six degrees, some attained in exile or prison, he navigated his way through the bloody, chaotic politics of the liberation movements before winning Zimbabwe’s first election in 1980.

Tsvangirai’s political CV is rather shorter. Born into an impoverished family in 1952, the eldest of nine children, he spent the liberation struggle at home, working on the mines and helping to look after his family. His lack of revolutionary credentials is endlessly highlighted by Mugabe’s supporters.

In the 1980s Tsvangirai rose through the unions, becoming the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. A decade later he founded the Movement for Democratic Change and led it to a victory over Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party in a constitutional referendum in 2000, Mugabe’s first electoral defeat.

Between 2000 and 2005, Mugabe and Zanu-PF defeated him in three subsequent elections, which were overshadowed by intimidation and vote-rigging. Then, in 2008, against the backdrop of 100,000 per cent inflation, Tsvangirai won the first round of presidential elections and the MDC narrowly beat Zanu-PF in parliamentary elections. But he pulled out of a second round after a brutal crackdown by the security forces against MDC supporters.

In 2009, under pressure from regional leaders and the west, Mugabe and he formed a coalition government. Since then MDC ministers have embarked on a series of reforms but the security portfolios remain in Mugabe’s grip, and now he shows all the signs of wanting another election and hoping to resume unfettered power.

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