Tsvangirai's risky, tactically ill-advised interview with the UK Telegraph

Jun 23, 2011

Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF have been relentless in accusing Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC of being 'puppets' of the West, and particularly of former colonial power Britain. The MDC's continuing significant support shows that that the electorate do not buy this, or perhaps that many of them don't care as much about this as they do about deposing Mugabe & Co. But it is still amazing how inept Tsvangirai and his team are at making sure that this charge does not stick to them.

Not even the MDC can deny that they enjoy close ties with and the patronage of Western governments. Nor does this necessarily mean being controlled and directed by them, although both the MDC and its Western supporters have often spoken and conducted themselves in ways that make it very easy for Mugabe and ZANU-PF to paint the relationships as being nefarious and of a colonial-style master-servant relationship.

Tsvangirai is currently engaged in an ugly war of words with senior military leaders over their expressed support for Mugabe and ZANU-PF. Tsvangirai is constitutionally quite right to say the military should not take sides in the contests between political parties. But on a purely tactical basis the very public nature of
his fight with the men who control the guns is ill-advised even if it is brave.
An important part of the transition which Zimbabwe is seeking to undergo is how a force which came into being and assumed power as the fighting wing of the party in effective power can be turned into a non-partisan military. It is clearly not going to be as simple as Tsvangirai and the MDC convincingly winning an election. 

Some lazy analysis has suggested that the top ranks of the military oppose a Tsvangirai presidency out of fear of losing their privileges and the possibility of prosecutions for abuses. This is no doubt partially true, but it is folly for the MDC and its backers to overlook the real ideological angst that army officers who were once liberation-era guerrilla fighters under Mugabe & Co would have towards them. That unease and the resulting animosity most definitely partly emanates from the closeness of Tsvangirai and the MDC to the governments of countries that opposed them in the liberation war they took part in. It is short-sighted and counter productive for Tsvangirai and his backers to downplay the reality of this important aspect of the opposition of at least the top members of the armed forces towards him.

This ideological aspect of the army's antipathy towards him can not be dealt with and neutralised by offering to buy off those army officials with assurances that they can keep the benefits of patronage they have enjoyed or that they will have immunity from prosecution. This is a deeper problem that Tsvangirai will have to continually work on publicly as well as quietly behind the scenes.

One obvious way he must do this work of changing the perception of him as a Western puppet is by being much more circumspect and selective in his Western associations. He must show that he cultivates and enjoys good relations with Western countries as a normal part of diplomacy as an aspiring future president of his country, but is in no way beholden to them. This could be difficult to do if it is true that his MDC principally depends on Western largesse, but even if so (and perhaps even more so in that case), he needs to try to undermine and negate the Mugabe/ZANU-PF accusation of his being a lapdog of the West. 

This will be difficult because of past words and actions by both Tsvangirai/MDC and his Western supporters whose memory cannot be erased. In some quarters of ZANU-PF (and by extension including the current top military ranks) as well as sections of the general population, Tsvangirai will almost permanently be suspected of being a Western stooge. Whether this is fair or not is beside the point. 'Fairness' has very little to do with the conduct of Zimbabwean politics, and Tsvangirai and his party must keep that in mind even as they agitate for more of that fairness.  

With the foregoing, Tsvangirai needs to be particularly careful with how his relations with Britain are conducted, and just as importantly, how they are perceived outside the immediate core support base that would support him whether they thought he was a 'stooge' or not.

Britain has expressed its differences with Mugabe in the same 'human rights and democracy' language as other Western countries, but clearly it has much deeper feelings and interests than just these. That explains their deeper interest in Zimbabwean affairs and in wanting to support efforts to see Mugabe go at almost any cost, but in that also lies the guilt by association that is giving Tsvangirai such a torrid time at present.     

The British press in general, regardless of ideological persuasion, is uniformly against Mugabe, sometimes in quite shrill, over the top ways. Even when there have been abuses and great difficulties in Zimabwe, the British press has often seemed to delight in depicting things as being a thousand times worse, as if Zimbabwe were a war zone in the same fashion as Iraq, which of course was ridiculous, counter-productive and unsustainable. The accompanying antipathy to Mugabe may remain, but in recent months the shrillness has died down somewhat, with British reportage on Zimbabwe sometimes even coming close to being fairly straight and 'neutral,' in the sense of telling what is happening while resisting the previously common practice of being very much 'involved' in the stories, and in an (obviously) anti-Mugabe/pro-Tsvangirai way. The reasons for this may be obvious, but it didn't do much for the general credibility of the British media in its reporting on Zimbabwe. It only strengthened the impression of a British wish to be involved in the affairs of the country in ways not appropriate for foreign institutions, regardless of how understandable were the depth of their kith and kin emotions against the incumbent president.

The Telegraph newspaper of the UK has been one of the more rabid of the 'serious' British papers in its reporting of the Zimbabwe story, more prepared than some others to clearly show its sympathies in the country's crisscrossing racial, historical, economic crises. Apart from the historical antecedents of particular emotional pull of the Zimbabwe story for the UK media in general, the Telegraph has a long established right-wing 'view' of Africa that should make an African politician be wary of being 'adopted' by the paper by being granted sympathetic coverage.

Particularly in the charged battle of wits that is politics in Zimbabwe today, Tsvangirai needs to think carefully about all theses issues before granting otherwise 'innocent' interviews such as he did to the Telegraph in its June 19 issue. There was nothing particularly unusual or new that Tsvangirai said in the interview about the difficulties of being in coalition with Mugabe. But in light of the way he is depicted as a British stooge by the people he is trying to depose from power; in particular light of this present tense moment of his on-going battle with Mugabe-backing army chiefs, and in light of the UK Telegraph's sometimes dubious record of reportage on Zimbabwe, Tsvangirai might have been better advised to at this time choose a different publication to grant an interview to.       

Strategising like this on every detail on which he and his party's reputation and image can be strengthened or weakened should be part of Tsvangirai and the MDC's tactics in a way it clearly isn't.

The Zimbabwe Review


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