Deconstructing Tsvangirai's Chicago speech

Sep 20, 2011

MDC leader and Zimbabwe prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai was recently in Chicago, apparently on a trip with a mainly business/investment promotion bent. With his coalition government partner and arch foe president Robert Mugabe also in the USA, to address the UN, it almost looks like the two are competing to sell themselves internationally. What does Tsvangirai's main address to a business grouping in Chicago reveal about him?

''I am happy to be at this renowned place alongside my brother here, Rev Jesse Jackson...''

Jesse Jackson is an old brand that someone like Tsvangirai, trying to put himself forward as the face of a changed Zimbabwe/Africa, gains nothing from closely associating himself with.

Once a respected civil rights leader and voice of change within the U.S., some of whose then moral authority slightly spilled over into global issues, Jesse Jackson now has little to offer, and has been repeatedly tainted by scandal, partly from the Mugabe-like impunity of being in his 'position' too long. He runs his 'movement' like a family enterprise, the same sort of charge that can be made against the man Tsvangirai wants to replace as leader of Zimbabwe, Mugabe.

By associating with 'my brother here' Jesse Jackson, Tsvangirai shows himself to be out of touch with who are the U.S. power brokers in a position to be helpfully influential to his being taken seriously in that country. That is especially so in light of the disparaging comments made about his political smarts by American diplomats in leaked U.S. Harare embassy documents. Tsvangirai is trying to portray himself as a man of the future; Jesse Jackson is yesterday's man.

''The people of our region are calling for a new type of leadership, a leadership that is democratic and that respects the will of the people. As the new crop of African leaders, we must ensure that we respect the will of the people; that we build strong and credible institutions that protect the people and that we should subject ourselves to regular and credible elections. It means we must create, nurse and jealously guard these independent institutions that act as a buffer between the excesses of the State and the interests of the people.''

It sounded trite because it is a point that is so self-evident. Repeating it a number of times unfortunately only made Tsvangirai sound somewhat vacuous. Instead of telling his audience what they already know, he could and should have more usefully spent some time telling them in just what ways he and his party represents the 'new type of leadership' that is lacking.

All the platitudes about 'democracy' and 'respecting the will of the people' have been made and disrespected by a long line of African rulers for 50 years now. What an increasingly skeptical Africa/world now wants to hear from people like Tsvangirai is: how are you going to be any different from the likes of Mugabe, who came into power promising the same things, but then became affixed to the seat of power?

Tsvangirai briefly explains to his audience the circumstances leading to the ''uneasy coalition government in February 2009 following the disputed election of 2008 which I and the party I lead won. Having won the first round of the presidential polls, I pulled out of the run-off following massive in which President Robert Mugabe contested against himself and proudly declared himself winner.''

This was an important point to make to those of his American audience who didn't know this piece of Zimbabwean political history. That could have been most of his audience. Tsvangirai made the point briefly, clearly and well.

It was also important for people not intimately familiar with events in Zimbabwe to know why Tsvangirai agreed to form a coalition government with a foe who he accuses of stealing the last election from him. He addresses this issue with, ''The uneasy coalition, in which Mr Mugabe became President while I became Prime Minister despite winning the credible poll, was formed with the help of the facilitation of the Southern Africa Development Community. The major aim of the transitional government was to stabilize the economy and to put in place mechanisms to ensure a free and fair election.''

This was good; brief but clear and well-explained.

Tsvangirai then goes on to lament some of the ways he feels his coalition partner ZANU-PF is trying to frustrate the creation of the free and fair electoral climate for which the unity government was created. That was fair enough, although he goes into detail that would probably be poorly understand by a distant foreign audience. But the essential point was delivered well; that conditions are still far from conducive for a free and fair election.

''The struggle unfolding in Zimbabwe is one that pits good over evil, right against wrong and freedom against tyranny.''

This kind of moralizing was a bit much. If there is anything Zimbabweans should have learnt in the 30 years of independence, it is that casting competing political actors in 'good versus evil,' or 'right and wrong' terms is passe and dangerous. With their performance in the coalition government, even in matters not directly controlled by 'senior partner' ZANU-PF, Tsvangirai and his MDC can no longer claim the mantle of being intrinsically 'good' while their opponents are intrinsically 'bad.' In fact the new MDC is increasingly, worryingly beginning to look like the old ZANU-PF in many ways. There are other ways Tsvangirai could have more realistically sought to paint the difference between his party and ZANU-PF.

''It is a fight that I am determined to wage and a fight that I as Prime Minister and the people of Zimbabwe will win.''

Your win and a win for ''the people of Zimbabwe'' are not necessarily one and the same thing. Whether the two become the same will only be clear if and when Tsvangirai has won and ruled for several years.

As has happened before, it quite possible for the 'win' of power by a politician promising 'democracy' and all the other popular platitudes actually ends up as a net 'loss' for the people of Zimbabwe! For Tsvangirai to conflate a possible win for him with being automatically a win for the people of Zimbabwe sounds arrogant in the way of Mugabe, who similarly, at least in his mind, ties up a 'win' for 'the people of Zimbabwe' with his continued stay in power.

''The struggle for freedom and democracy in Zimbabwe should be part of a global campaign where the people and their leaders in all nations in the region and across the world should be prepared to stand with the people of Zimbabwe in an epic and righteous struggle for freedom and democracy. The world must assist Zimbabwe to ensure that we transit peacefully to a democracy and a legitimate government.''

Tsvangirai should have gone further to clarify how he thinks outsiders can ''stand with the people of Zimbabwe.'' It is not obvious how this can be practically achieved, given the failure of years of an unflattering international spotlight on Mugabe to substantially influence things in Zimbabwe.

''The people of our great continent are no longer willing to play second-best in the universal struggles for human rights''

The appellations ''our great country, our great people, our great continent'' are vastly over-used in political speech-making. Every country/continent considers itself 'great' in one way or another. It merely sounds shallow and derivative when politicians continue to use it, like they are just copying what thousands of other political speech readers say. In most cases it adds absolutely nothing to a speech, and vaguely sounds over the top in an 'I love my country/continent so much' way that is cringe-worthy and un-necessary.

From a distance, it sounds like a mostly lackluster speech devoid of any particular inspiration. Just from critically reading the text (as opposed to being there to gauge speech delivery and audience reaction), it is not at all evident that Tsvangirai succeeded in painting himself as the kind of African leader who will be any different from the long line of good talkers who turned into overstaying, oppressive despots.

A speech about domestic political affairs that is delivered in a foreign land is tough to pull off well, it must be conceded on Tsvangirai's behalf. It is easy to hit the wrong note at home by going 'too far' in ways that may sound heroic to the foreign audience but sound quite different back home. So it is easier and safer to string together a bunch of political platitudes which one knows will get some polite applause but that really don't add up to saying anything significant.

Perhaps Tsvangirai could have taken some speech-making lessons from his 'brother' Jesse Jackson. Jackson is a master at delivering stirring, heart-tugging, tear-jerking speeches even when he is saying absolutely nothing.

The Zimbabwe Review

Related: What Mugabe's UN speech revealed


Post a Comment