Zimbabwe in 'dire state' under Robert Mugabe, says former PM

In an interview, Morgan Tsvangirai criticizes the president for his racial policies and cronyism. But the main opposition leader is himself on the ropes.   

Dai Kurokawa/AP/File
Prime Minister of Zimbabwe Morgan Tsvangirai stands outside the East London airport in Eastern Cape, South Africa, after arriving to attend the late former South African President Nelson Mandela's funeral, December 14, 2013.

Six months after Robert Mugabe coasted to victory in Zimbabwe’s hotly disputed July presidential election, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai used a holiday reference to describe the policies of his rival: Grinch-like.

"It is clear the current government stole Christmas from Zimbabweans,” the former prime minister said. "The nation is in a dire state."

Mr. Tsvangirai’s prognosis has some data points: Zimbabwe’s economy is slipping, with more than 700 firms shutting down last year and unemployment at 80 percent. Foreign-owned businesses are in jeopardy. And international human rights watchdogs are pointing to an unhealthy water and sanitation conditions in the capital, Harare. 

But Tsvangirai and his opposition party are no longer sharing power with Mugabe, one of Africa’s more controversial leaders. Instead, they are fighting for their political life amid accusations they did too little to improve the country during their five years sharing power.

There are questions about whether Tsavangirai, for many years a figure of heroic stature and resistance to authoritarianism, is in permanent eclipse.

The opposition faces the opprobrium of the new government: Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Australia, Jacqueline Zwambila, a Tsvangirai nominee, recently asked for asylum on grounds that she feared for her life if she returned to Zimbabwe. She was recalled for conduct “unfit for a diplomat,” which she says is code for participation in the opposition.

Meanwhile, Mugabe’s government has soldiered forward with a plan to “indigenize” local business by banning foreigners from owning a majority stake in several sectors.

Officials now say that from Jan. 1 of this year, foreigners will not be issued licenses in estate agencies, grain mills, retail outlets, milk processing plants, transport and valet services. Indigenization Minister Francis Nhema announced last week that foreign-owned businesses must close within five years.

Replacing white elites

For his part, Tsvangirai told the Monitor in a recent interview in Oxford, UK that Mugabe’s indigenization policies were simple cronyism, amounting to little more than “an exercise in replacing a few white elites with a few black elites.”

But if Zimbabwe’s wobbly political course has inspired outrage from many corners of Zimbabwean civil society, it has largely failed to reinvigorate Tsvangirai or his opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The MDC hobbled out of 2013 disgraced not only by its defeat in the election, but also by internal squabbling and accusations of corruption. Tsvangirai's estranged wife is writing a book on him that is expected to dish more dirt. 

“The MDC are very good at describing the problems in Zimbabwe,” says Phillan Zamchiya, an expert on Zimbabwean politics at the University of Oxford. “And once they describe a problem, they can run a very strong election campaign around it. But they’re much weaker on thinking up solid alternatives."

In fact, he says, the MDC has lost much of its sheen over the last five years, as the party transitioned from serving as the mouthpiece for the disenfranchised to actually participating in the gritty business of governing.

While the MDC’s Tendai Biti – who served as finance minister during the unity government – is credited for stabilizing Zimbabwe’s runaway inflation, the party failed to provide a convincing overall alternative to Mugabe’s long rule, Mr. Zamchiya says.

For Zamchiya, there are “two Morgan Tsvangirais.” One of them is an electrifying campaigner and former union leader with an instinct for winning crowds and filling stadiums. The other is the man who “struggles to communicate consistently and logically” in boardrooms and closed-door meetings. 

Indeed, a survey conducted by Freedom House in 2012 found that Tsvangirai’s support among Zimbabweans dropped from 38 to 20 percent over the course of his stint as prime minister.

New blood

“I respect and admire him for his achievements so far in the struggle for change in the country,” wrote MDC supporter Wisdom Katungu in the independent newspaper New Zimbabwe. “However…. after his heavy defeat in the recent elections … the man needs to step aside and let new blood take the party to the Promised Land.”

But Tsvangirai has given no intention that he intends to give up his place at the helm of the MDC, which he has led since its founding 15 years ago.

“I don’t think that I’ve faltered. I’ve never faltered,” he says. “I think people still have confidence in my leadership.”

After July's election, which was declared “free but not fair” by international observers, the MDC filed a legal challenge in Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court challenging the results. They withdrew the case, however, when the government refused to turn over evidence.

Tsvangirai says, however, that he intends to keep fighting.

“I’ve faced a lot of personal torment from [Mugabe],” Tsvangirai says. “I’ve been arrested, I’ve been charged with treason, I’ve been battered … but you know what? … Democratic struggle isn’t an event. It’s always a process. This is only a setback. Democratic change has been delayed but it has not been abandoned.”

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