Why have Morgan Tsvangirai and his handlers allowed Locadia Tembo marriage issue to become a public relations disaster?

Nov 28, 2011

Almost from any angle, the story of if and how Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai got traditionally married to Ms. Locadia Karimatsenga Tembo is strange. That his emissaries went to her family and took part in some socio-cultural ceremony is not denied by any one. But was it the traditional payment of roora/lobola/bride price, or was it ‘damages’ for her reported out-of –wedlock pregnancy? That has been the crux of much of the discussion, with surprisingly confusing signals from those who would be expected to know, and surprising reluctance from the two ‘principals’ to clear this up and avoid a looming public relations disaster for Tsvangirai. Quite unintentionally, what should be a straight forward and happy private matter has become a fraught issue of personal and political brand management, or the lack of it.

When his widely-liked wife Susan died in a tragic accident in 2009, Zimbabweans of all political persuasions commiserated with Tsvangirai on his loss. The occasion of his re-marriage should be a happy, uncontroversial one for him personally, as well as politically. Yet in the inexplicable way it has been handled, it threatens to severely knock his personal reputation, seemingly quite un-necessarily, with possibly significant collateral damage on the MDC party he leads as well.

Tsvangirai has been accused of being reckless in sowing his wild oats since his wife died. “I could not pick her out in a line up,” he is said to have infamously quipped about a young woman he is reported to have made pregnant. It is said when she went public his lawyers were instructed to quietly negotiate a package for the upkeep of the woman and her son by Tsvangirai. If true, his alleged quip suggests carelessness in his personal life that could easily trip him up in many ways, including politically.

Therefore, any person of goodwill would wish Tsvangirai well if he believed he had found a new stable partner he was ready to settle down with in the person of Ms. Tembo. Apart from the general life boost any couple enjoy if their relationship is happy and fulfilling, from a distance Tembo appears to potentially be a political plus for Tsvangirai as well. She is professionally accomplished; said to be a self-made ‘wealthy businesswoman.’ In a media-intense age in which being photogenic is not irrelevant to public life, she 'photographs well.'

A sister of hers is an MP of the ZANU-PF party Tsvangirai’s MDC opposes. While some MDC fundamentalists have expressed suspicion and unease over this, it is simply a reality of Zimbabwean life. MDC and ZANU-PF may be bitter opponents at macro level, but they fish for support from the same pool of voters. There is nothing at all unusual about members of the same family supporting different parties. If anything, Tsvangirai’s relationship with/marriage to a person with close ZANU-PF links could be spun as a refreshing sign of personal and political maturity, as well as of the kind of easy political tolerance that should be the norm at every level in Zimbabwe.

But paranoia amongst opponents of ZANU-PF has become deep-seated as a result of the levels of repression that have become the norm over the 30 years of independence. Tsvangirai and countless MDC members have suffered public and private brutality at the hands of various ZANU-PF controlled arms of government. The inexplicable (and increasingly inexcusable) dragging out of the bizarre uncertainty over whether Tsvangirai did or did not marry Tembo has only fed the suspicion of some of his supporters, who fear un-specified ‘plotting’ by ZANU-PF to somehow ‘trap him.’

Others fear that the ‘trapping’ is by people within the MDC who are seeking to get or retain closeness to Tsvangirai. In these scenarios he is depicted as an almost helpless football, kicked around politically as well as personally,  up to and including who he sleeps with and does (or doesn’t?) marry! It’s not a good image for a prime minister and an aspiring president.

With the awful way the whole issue has been handled, the picture of Tsvangirai that may remain in the public imagination could be negative in a long term way, even if that would be unfair and perhaps very different from the actual, currently puzzlingly unclear facts. Once it has become a public issue, which it clearly has done, why on earth should it be so hard to say if Prime Minister of Zimbabwe Morgan Tsvangirai has got married to Ms. Locadia Tembo or not? Good grief.

The confusion from even within his own camp about whether he had or had not married Tembo, or 'only' paid for 'pregnancy damages' has the effect of only feeding the more suspicious of Tsvangirai’s followers that their leader has been ‘bedroom infiltrated’ by ZANU-PF.

Sooner or later the love birds will clear up the confusion. But the delay in doing so and the intense, wild speculation this has led to may mean even if the couple settles down happily, there will remain some amongst those close to Tsvangirai who will continue to suspect that his new wife is a ZANU-PF mole. If so, it will mean the political will inevitably intrude into the personal, and vice versa, more so than is healthy for the couple and the MDC, and more so than was necessary if the issue had been dealt with cleanly, quickly and with public clarity.

Is Tembo expecting Tsvangirai’s twins or isn’t she? This is another issue that should ordinarily mainly be private, and one that the public should merely be able to congratulate the two on once announced or self-evident. But the circus manner in which the marriage issue has been handled has instead focused attention on Tsvangirai's seeming lack of sexual self-control.

Tsvangirai has recently, before this latest issue, described himself this way: “I am a Christian associated with the Methodist church. I am father. I am a grandfather. I am a family man.”

This was in the context of addressing the controversy over his expressed support for the constitutional protection of the rights of homosexuals to their sexual orientation. Tsvangirai wanted it understood that this did not mean he ‘supported’ homosexuality or that he was gay himself. Not only was he trying to say he was ‘normal;’ by invoking his church membership and his family life, he was also implying that he was ‘responsible’ in terms that his society could easily relate to.

There are, however, some inevitable and uncomfortable questions that arise for Tsvangirai by his behavior now contradicting this 'responsible' image he would like to project. Those questions have become more prominent than they might have been if the marriage matter had been handled more directly and openly.

Making two women he is not married to pregnant in a two year span does not seem particularly ‘responsible’ for a 59 year old church member grandfather! It is true that he is an adult and a bachelor, free to engage in consensual sexual relationships. And perhaps he wore a condom that broke on the two occasions he made the two women pregnant. Even if he didn’t wear a condom either time, he would be just like countless other pre-full commitment couples who enjoy unprotected sex in the heat of passion; the dangers only fully contemplated afterwards. It might be unwise in the age of HIV/AIDS, but it is certainly no crime.

If it had quickly been made clear that Tsvangirai had indeed married Tembo, none of this would have been particularly important. The whispering about a possible Tsvangirai proclivity towards dangerous sexual indiscretion would have largely been drowned out in the congratulations over the marriage.

But because of how the issue has been mishandled, allowing more opportunity for the public to chatter and speculate, there has been more focus on issues of Tsvangirai’s seeming preparedness to engage in unprotected sex in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of HIV/AIDS. Presumably with Tembo the relationship had progressed to where unprotected sex was deliberate, rather than casual or ‘accidental.’ Yet taken together with his previous purported admission that he would not recognize a woman he had casual sex with, the overall impression is in quite marked contrast to that of a ‘responsible’ church member, father, grandfather and family man!

Quick open-ness by Tsvangirai and his handlers about the Tembo marriage issue would have nipped right in the bud much of the public sniping and speculation about sexual looseness; a reckless disregard for the dangers of HIV/AIDS; accusations of a lack of respect for women and so on. The main focus would then have been on the ‘happy ever after’ aspects of the marriage itself, rather than on the circumstances of how it came about or on past indiscretions.

Of course there are those who will admire Tsvangirai for being a suave bachelor-about-town, taking advantage of his prominence to be a ‘playa.’ But by his own self-description, this is not the image he would wish to project to the public, even if it is the private reality of how he conducts his life.

As things stand, even as it increasingly appears that Tsvangirai did indeed marry Tembo, the atrociously poor handling of the issue means there will for a long time be ill feeling amongst many people important to the couple.

Understandably, many of Tembo’s relatives are outraged and feel diminished by the suggestions that they ‘misinterpreted’ the ‘damages’ mission of Tsvangirai’s people as instead a mission to pay roora/lobola/bride price, or that they are putting pressure on a reluctant Tsvangirai to marry Locadia. This insultingly makes them appear culturally illiterate, na├»ve, unsophisticated and almost desperately eager to hitch their relative Locadia to Tsvangirai. Even if this were indeed the case, the way the issue has been allowed to blow up in public does not easily give them a way to ‘save face.’

It would not be surprising if there are members of Tembo’s family who will not quickly or easily forgive Tsvangirai, even if he is actually their prominent new in-law, for what has turned out into a social-cultural-political faux pas, quite inexplicably and un-necessarily. He could have shortened their pain and embarrassment by simply publicly coming out to say, “I love her and yes, I happily paid bride price for her, she is now my wife.”

Or Tsvangirai could have alternatively even done a Bill Clinton-esque but clinically neat, early, "I did indeed pay symbolic 'damages' to Locadia's family for making her pregnant without being married to her, but I did not and have no intention of marrying that woman Ms. Tembo."

There would have been a different kind of heavy negative fallout from the latter position for Tsvangirai, but at least he would have appeared honest, upfront and in charge of the situation, rather than looking as if he is panicky and controlled by events.   

Instead…silence! Disastrous for family relations, as well as for Tsvangirai’s larger image, even when the details of the fiasco eventually fade from public memory. He would be coming into the Tembo family as an in-law in a way that is causing them much embarrassment after the initial joy and excitement.

Tsvangirai’s spokesman, Luke Tamborinyoka, will likely also bear much of the brunt of the Tembo family’s resentment for some time to come, if not forever. The poor fellow initially robustly, flippantly rubbished the claims of a traditional marriage having taken place. It seems inconceivable that he would do so without being instructed to do so. One hopes it was not that Tamborinyoka was simply left out of the loop on this important detail of the life of his boss, and which it was not possible could remain entirely a private matter. It has actually become even more public as a result of its mishandling.

Whichever the case, the disastrous fallout of neither Tsvangirai nor his team being willing to quickly clear up the confusion will inevitably include Tamborinyoka being one of this saga’s fall guys. He has been made to look ridiculous to the media peers with who he must engage on Tsvangirai’s behalf, reducing his credibility and effectiveness, at least in the immediate term.

The Tembo family is likely to be deeply angry with Tamborinyoka for appearing to slight them by his strong, dismissive denials of a delegation having gone to pay bride price for Locadia's hand on behalf of his boss. Where will Luke look now? He becomes another person close to Tsvangirai who has been left humiliated (self-inflicted or otherwise) by this classic, astonishing example of how not to handle a situation. No doubt there are many other players in this mysterious saga who will get hit by the flying debris.

Happy as Tsvangirai’s children would no doubt be at their father finding a new life companion, the idea of another woman ‘taking the place’ of their late mother cannot be easy. It required a particular sensitivity on the father's part for them to get used to the idea of another woman in his life. The inept way Tsvangirai & Associates have managed this is likely to cause public embarrassment and further pain to his children, who after only two years may still be keenly grieving over the loss of their mother. A ‘clean’ and transparent marriage by Tsvangirai to Tembo that avoided the public fiasco into which it has sunk would likely have made it much easier for them to make the mental and emotional transition of accepting Ms. Tembo as their new step mother. The un-necessary drama that has been allowed to surround the whole issue makes this harder to do, and may leave unfortunate lingering family tension.

Inevitably, the mess and lack of clear information has led some members of the public to speculate that Tsvangirai was not ready to settle down but has been somehow railroaded into a ‘shotgun’ marriage by Locadia and her family. Even if this speculation is cruel and unfair, it will now likely dog the couple, and would be particularly sad and unfortunate for Locadia. This causes the unfortunate attaching of quite un-necessary, potentially long-lasting baggage to their union.

One could go on and on about how tragedy and farce are being created out of what should be a joyful situation. 

If Tsvangirai was hoping to be able to get away with a hit and run situation like he allegedly did with the young woman who bore him a son last year, perhaps 'wealthy business woman' Locadia told him, "no way are you paying me off with a few thousand dollars, buster."

Whereas the other woman that has been publicly mentioned as bearing Tsvangirai a son was young and inexperienced, Locadia is a shrewd, sophisticated, mature business woman who may not be inclined to be 'used and discarded,' as others may or may not have been before.

Did Tsvangirai have what he thought was an easy, no attachment, no consequences 'nice time;' finally getting himself in deeper trouble than he expected or has done before? Is this shameful, apparently unfair-to-Locadia and her family mess a way of Tsvangirai now hoping to wriggle himself out of commitment, at least to her? (It has been rumored that Tsvangirai had promised marriage to a woman other than Locadia.) If so, maybe this time he has met his match. If Tsvangirai is a serial 'playa' accustomed to buying his way out of sticky situations, is he finally getting his comeuppance? Is this perhaps a case of the 'playa' finally 'getting played' instead?

But if Tsvangirai and Ms. Tembo have indeed married, may they be happy together despite the inauspicious start of their new life; congratulations/makorokoto/amlohpe, woo-hoo. And may the many people around them who have been burned by the shockingly careless handling of what was inevitably going to be a public marriage recover from the very messy blow up of how it was done.

The Zimbabwe Review


Anonymous said...

I hope he will wake up to his senses. Surely no-one ever forced him to sleep with who from where. Inga vamwe varume varikubuda wani pachena kuti they were raped. Ivo vakamanikizwa here?? zvekunzi Theresa Makoni this, Beata Nyamupinga that is all trying to hide behind a finger. He quite new who they were & so forth. This will be his own undoing - unfortunately. I dont blame the public/pvt media at all. Their duty is to report untruths & as long is this is all true - well, tight for our PM. As a woman and mother I feel that he has really shown no respect to our gender & thot he wd use and discard @ will. Thats unkind and immoral.

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