South African president Thabo Mbeki used to privately sigh that the Zimbabwean opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was just "another Frederick Chiluba". Chiluba, a former bus conductor and trade unionist, swept to power on a pro-democracy wave in Zambia in 1991, ousting the independence leader Kenneth Kaunda, who had clung to power since independence in 1964.
Kaunda at least left when he saw the writing on the wall, unlike the 84-year-old Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, and who is seemingly prepared to hold on until death. Chiluba was hailed as a breath of fresh air, but once in power soon dashed the democratic hopes of those who elected him. In a final backsliding act, he tried to change the country's constitution so he could run for president for a third time. He lost.
The comparison is unfair. Tsvangirai, a burly former trade unionist, is a man of more substance than his critics admit. The son of a bricklayer, he rose from humble roots to become plant foreman of the Bindura Nickel Mine, while pursuing a parallel trade union career that saw him elected as general secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in 1988. Under Tsvangirai, the ZCTU bucked the African trend whereby trade unions become mere appendages of governments once the liberation movements to which they were linked assume power.
It took guts for Tsvangirai, a former senior Zanu-PF official, to oppose Zimbabwe's slide into dictatorship by forming the Movement for Democratic Change in 1999, turning his back on the liberation movement to which he was dearly attached. Even if they concede Robert Mugabe is a disgrace, Mbeki and other African leaders still cannot countenance Tsvangirai in power. For neighbouring leaders such as Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Tsvangirai has committed two crimes: one in 1999 when he formed the MDC to oppose a sitting liberation movement; and, before then, by cutting his political teeth as a civil activist rather than as a Zanu-PF guerrilla.
Tsvangirai was born in 1952, in the small town of Gutu in central Zimbabwe. The eldest of nine children, he had to leave school at 16 to support them. Mugabe, who prides himself on his seven degrees, gets palpitations about the fact that Tsvangirai, with his lack of formal qualifications, may yet become Zimbabwean president. Many African independence and liberation leaders claim to represent "the people", but most come from elite backgrounds.
Zimbabwe has a central place in the mythology of African liberation movements. Its decline, under Zanu-PF, into dictatorship, has damaged the almost sacred idea of the liberation movements being on the side of the people. Could the MDC under Tsvangirai forge an alternative path by becoming Africa's first real grass-roots-based movement: the first to split from a liberation movement, achieve power and then govern democratically?
Learning from his mistakes
First, Tsvangirai will have to win the presidential run-off. After the 29 March polls, Mugabe gerrymandered the results to give the opposition less than 50 per cent, forcing a second presidential run-off. Mbeki and other African leaders are making feverish behind-the-scenes efforts to stop the run-off and cobble together a coalition government similar to the one negotiated by Kofi Annan in Kenya after the disputed election of December 2007. But Mugabe insists he will only agree to cancel the run-off if he becomes the head of any coalition government.
After recounting the ballots in areas where he lost, Mugabe now has all the information on those who voted for the MDC and has unleashed a targeted terror campaign to stop them voting again. In recent weeks, South African generals returned from Zimbabwe with reports of Zanu-PF brutality on such a horrendous scale that even Mbeki - who made the infamous declaration that "there is no crisis in Zimbabwe" - is said to have been shaken. Tsvangirai must now mobilise his supporters to go on in the face of sustained violence. He has been largely prevented from campaigning - on 6 June police detained him for the second time in a week. The day before, Mugabe indefinitely suspended all work by aid groups and police held a group of US and British diplomats for several hours after they visited victims of state-sponsored violence. African leaders and the west have done shamefully little to help ordinary Zimbabweans face up to this intimidation.
And Tsvangirai himself has made strategic blunders. Those who had reservations about his leadership must have felt vindicated when he went against a democratic decision by his party's national council to contest the 2005 senate election. Partially as a result, a dissident wing, under former student leader Arthur Mutambara, formed a rival MDC to contest the disputed senate poll. Just at the moment when Mugabe had his back against the wall, the Zimbabwean opposition split into irreconcilable factions.
Tsvangirai has made other mistakes. In 2000, when Mugabe launched his land grab and terrorism against the opposition, Tsvangirai sought help in South Africa. Mbeki, then, as now, did not know how to respond, and took the safe option of doing nothing. Instead of lobbying ANC figures who had been critical of Mugabe, Tsvangirai turned to the predominantly white conservative Democratic Alliance and white business leaders. But the white opposition in South Africa tried to frame the Zimbabwe meltdown as a case of blacks fighting whites; rather than as the actions of a dictator against his people - black or white.
It took the MDC almost five years to regain the confidence of those within the ANC who opposed Mbeki's closeness to Mugabe. And Tsvangirai has found it hard to dispel Mugabe's propaganda that he is a pawn of Britain and the United States. Nor has the MDC leader been able to articulate a coherent strategy on how he is going to resolve Zimbabwe's skewed land and wealth distribution - which is not going to disappear once the MDC comes to power.
Since the disputed 29 March elections, Tsvangirai has been either in hiding or outside the country. His strategists say it was to prevent him being assassinated by Mugabe's thugs: last year his bloodied face was beamed across the world after he was beaten by police following a peaceful march. Some years earlier an assassination squad tried to push him out of the tenth floor of a building after beating him over the head with metal bars. Ahead of the 2002 elections, he was accused of planning to assassinate Mugabe. The case dragged on for almost two years. If he had been found guilty, he would have faced the death penalty.
Some of his supporters wonder why, knowing Mugabe would not relinquish power even if he lost, Tsvangirai did not launch a Ukraine-style peaceful revolution to oust Mugabe when he refused to release the results of the presidential elections. Instead, Tsvangirai opted for petitioning the courts to force Mugabe to release the poll results. Some MDC members urged Tsvangirai to grab power last week, when Mugabe left the country to attend a UN summit in Rome on the global food crisis. He refused.
Yet his travails have matured Tsvangirai. He appears presidential, surer of himself, choosing his words with more care. When Mugabe petulantly decided to stay put in Harare in April while regional leaders were discussing the Zimbabwean turmoil in Zambia, Tsvangirai took his place. This is a far cry from the naive politician I met in Johannesburg a decade ago. The fact that he proactively lobbied African leaders one by one during this stand-off showed a man who appears to have learned from his earlier mistakes.
If Tsvangirai sweeps to victory, there will not be time for on-the-job training. He will inherit an economy in freefall, with inflation at 165,000 per cent, and unemployment at 80 per cent. He will need that organisational flair fostered in the trade union movement to heal divisions in Zimbabwe, but also to bring in western governments and businesses to commit money to the country's long-term reconstruction.
William Gumede's book "Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC" is published by Zed Books (£16.99)