‘‘I’m not Nelson Mandela’’

Morgan Tsvangirai is on tour promoting the New Zimbabwe, but can he honestly bury the past and build

Just before Morgan Tsvangirai walks into the room, the woman sitting next to me says she thinks he is the bravest man in the world. We are sitting in a grand, pillared hall in a building off the Strand in central London. When Tsvangirai is introduced as the prime minister of Zimbabwe, there is long, resounding applause.

The reception for the prime minister is different from the one he received a few days ago in Southwark Cathedral. Tsvangirai, having urged Zimbabweans living in London to return home, was booed by the audience. As one member said simply after the event: “He has lost us.” For many people, the spectacle of Tsvangirai sharing power with Robert Mugabe, the man credited with destroying Zimbabwe, is unbearable, incomprehensible even. During the general election of March 2008, Mugabe’s supporters tortured and killed those of Tsvangirai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Tsvangirai himself has been subjected to beatings, armed assaults and an attempted assassination.

The two leaders weren’t always pitted against each other. When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, Tsvangirai joined Mugabe’s party, Zanu-PF. But his relationship with the government began to deteriorate after he became secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in 1988. Just over a decade later, in 1999, he founded the MDC.

He first stood against Mugabe in 2002, in an election that was widely condemned as unfair. In 2008, he won a higher percentage of the vote than Mugabe in the first round (47.8 per cent to Mugabe’s 43.2 per cent), but withdrew from the second round because of rising violence. Within months, however, Tsvangirai and Mugabe had begun talks, shaking hands for the first time on 21 July.

By September they had reached a deal – brokered by the then South African president, Thabo Mbeki – in which Tsvangirai became prime minister and Mugabe, while continuing as president, ceded day-to-day control of
the government.

Today, Tsvangirai is determined to look to the future. His language skips over what has gone before and plunges forward. It is a fresh start for Zimbabwe. The country is becoming a different place. Inflation is being reined in; hospitals and schools are reopening. Or, to put it another way: “What could possibly go wrong that hasn’t already gone wrong?”

Tsvangirai has to be upbeat. The purpose of his trip – whirling from Barack Obama in the Oval Office to Gordon Brown in Downing Street and covering most of western Europe in between – is to show the world that Zimbabwe is back up and running; that desperately needed aid would not be wasted; that the country is able and willing to re-engage with the outside world. Tsvangirai says he is looking to raise roughly $8bn over the next few years to pump into his country.

Yet the audience won’t let him skate over the past so easily. Will there be a truth and reconciliation commission, in the style of South Africa or Northern Ireland, somebody asks. “I think that is unavoidable given our history of trauma,” he says. He has already used the South African comparison, noting the time it takes for a country to turn itself around and rebuild. But he avoids the personal comparison with that country’s former leader. “I’m not Nelson Mandela,” he says. “Neither do I pretend to be.”

Tsvangirai certainly divides opinion. He is hero-worshipped one moment, then accused of being a power-hungry hypocrite the next. But the main object of fascination is his partnership with Mugabe – the “personal relationship”, as Tsvangirai puts it. “It’s an extraordinary experience.” The audience laughs, amazed at his ability to shrug off years of violence with a genial smile. He describes how Mugabe had been his hero in 1980, winning the general election and becoming Zimbabwe’s first black prime minister. But “over time he has transformed to be a villain”.

When they began to negotiate the power-sharing deal, Tsvangirai hadn’t seen Mugabe for ten years. They had become political opponents – although “not enemies”, he insists. “The first time we had dinner, the two of us, it was quite a dramatic experience.” As though talking about a troubled marriage, Tsvangirai describes how they “have been working through this”, in spite of acrimonious exchanges in the early days of talks. “Do I trust Robert Mugabe?” He pauses. “Obviously, it’s too early to say.” But when it comes down to it, Tsvangirai is “prepared to work with him for the good of the country”. The prime minister is impatient to tackle land reform, public services, economic development, and finally, what everyone is waiting for: a proper and fair election.

I ask him how he sees the future of his country beyond the challenges of transition. “We’ll call it the ‘New Zimbabwe’,” he says, where “democracy is consolidated and prosperity once again becomes a possibility”. He claims the idea isn’t difficult – Zimbabwe simply needs to be restored to its former status as the country with the second-largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the best education systems on the continent. “But,” he continues sombrely, “for Zimbabweans to share this vision we must never again descend to a situation where we are isolated, marginalised, poor, unable to feed ourselves and in a situation where we have become refugees all over the world.”

That situation, he knows, is all too recent, too raw, and still a reality for many Zimbabweans. There are other obstacles, too – not least the sanctions against Zimbabwe that the British government has said will remain in place despite Tsvangirai’s presence in government. They won’t be lifted, says Mark Malloch Brown, minister for Africa, “until we are convinced that Zimbabwe’s transition to democracy has reached a point of no return”.

Tsvangirai’s vision for his country is bravely, defiantly optimistic. But as he leaves the room to more applause, there is a feeling that goodwill alone will not be enough to help him along the treacherous road ahead.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood