‘‘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.