What the past few weeks have revealed about Morgan Tsvangirai

Sep 19, 2012

The past few weeks have been a hectic, torrid time for Movement for Democratic Change leader and Zimbabwe coalition government Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai. What is amazing is how most of the damage to his image has been so wantonly reckless and self-inflicted. Even if he gets over this image hump, what the public has learned about him in recent weeks is not particularly confidence-inspiring for a leader whose brand is largely based on the promise of conduct different from that of the politicians who have been in control for the past three decades.


Intimate details of his exploits with various lovers in the last year or two have been all over the media, spoiling his wished for civil wedding on September 16 to the woman he appears to have finally settled for, Elizabeth Macheka. A successful legal challenge to that civil wedding by one previous lover (who considers herself his first wife), Locardia Karimatsenga, meant that Tsvangirai and Elizabeth went ahead with their ceremony, but had to call it something other than a civil wedding. Some of the media dubbed it a 'mock wedding.' That in itself is the kind of mockery that the couple might find hard to live down. When even your sympathisers start cracking jokes at and about you, you have lost much of your groove. Don't be surprised if Tsvangirai is much more reticent about subjecting himself to media interviews from now on.

So Tsvangirai and Elizabeth are husband and wife according to Zimbabwe traditional marriage custom, but not necessarily according to the side-by-side European-based law.

One newspaper said Tsvangirai had 'defiantly' gone ahead with his wedding despite the many obstacles and alleged plotting of his enemies. But in reality, one had to cringe at the whole circus around the painful details of the prime minister's personal life. They made riveting reading but at the same time it was tawdry and sad.

Whether and how all the salacious details of his many lovers and the promises he did or didn't make to them will affect his political fortunes remains to be seen. However, there seems little doubt that whether one is a Tsvangirai fan or not, the public has in a short space of time been given volumes of new insights into the makeup of Tsvangirai the man.

It is technically correct to say the whole girlfriends and marriage hullabaloos, while fascinating, are his personal affairs and in theory have no bearing on his role as a political leader. But not even those of his supporters who utter this defense of Tsvangirai seem to believe it. The personal has most definitely affected the political for Tsvangirai and the MDC, at least temporarily.

A major policy announcement scheduled for last week had to be postponed. That was wise, as the frenzy of new revelations of Tsvangirai's affairs would have drowned out any media and public attention paid to the manifesto. About a week ago Tsvangirai was grilled on a Zimbabwe-targeted Voice of America radio station. If there had been any hope by his team of using his answers to some of the penetrating questions asked on that program to promote him, the firestorm of details about his love life that soon followed made that impossible.

So the fact that his personal life has definitely intruded into the MDC's political business is clear. The best the party can hope for is that this will be limited and short term, and that they can steer attention away from those personal troubles.

Here are some impressions of Tsvangirai in light of his performance of recent weeks.

He sounded trapped and wishy-washy in the way of many politicians on the VOA interview. But another impression that was stronger on this occasion  than on many previous ones was how much more articulate he has become in recent years. For someone who is often ridiculed by some of his detractors for a humble education, he is quite lucid and well spoken, if not always very deep. In a Zimbabwe where the importance and usefulness of being book-learned is often over-estimated, Tsvangirai does not come across as being any less 'presidential' than anybody else in the running.

The photos and other details of Tsvangirai's escapades in Zimbabwe and elsewhere with various women claiming to be his lovers has revealed that he has access to large amounts of money for his personal use. Whether with party, supporters' or donors' money, in recent years Tsvangirai has got accustomed to an expensive lifestyle far divorced from that of the struggling people on whose behalf he claims to be championing 'democratic change.'

Some of his supporters may actually admire him more for somehow using politics to vastly, mysteriously improve his personal lot. But there are many others, actual and potential supporters alike, who will never again be able to quite see Tsvangirai as a change agent. He increasingly looks just like the long-ruling ZANU-PF politicians he opposes.

The Daily News reported a few days after the 'mock wedding' that Tsvangirai and Elizabeth would not go on honeymoon. The way his spokesperson tried to spin this was that, "He has chosen not to go on a honeymoon because of various critical national issues such as the constitution, starvation, which do not need an absence in national leadership. He will be available to attend to any pressing national issues. This is no time for a honeymoon. He is on call.” 

This sounded like a hilarious but utterly unconvincing, even half-hearted attempt to reduce the damage of the image of Tsvangirai as a playboy who globetrots with his lovers to various exotic locales; a man sort of on permanent holiday with his girlfriends. One read that weak statement with mirth, but also deep sympathy for the poor spokesman who had to valiantly try to cover up for his bosses putting both of his feet in horse manure.

Tsvangirai will particularly have a hard time erasing from public memory one widely published photo of himself and his claimed former South African lover. Tsvangirai was pictured on a speed boat on the waters somewhere, reportedly in Asia, the two love birds grinning broadly, the prime minister 'working hard' on his seduction techniques while dressed in shorts and a loud, flowery Hawaii shirt.

Fairly or unfairly, it is the kind of graphic, undeniable and long-lasting imagery of enjoying luxury living that rarely does any politician anywhere any good, let alone in a country with a poor economy, mass joblessness and much hardship. So much for not going on honeymoon because of 'pressing national issues' and 'being on call!' The 'various critical national issues' his spokesman pathetically quipped about in regard to Tsvangirai not going on honeymoon were as 'pressing' when he was cavorting around the world with his many girlfriends as they are now.

Perhaps Tsvangirai's spokesman could have just tried, "my embarrassing and embarrassed boss is not going on honeymoon because he has already been on many pre-honeymoons with various women at exotic locales around the world, as you have recently seen and heard about recently in the media. Then at least the spokesman and Tsvangirai himself could have won a point each for originality and humour.  

Which brings up the point of how lacking in discretion Tsvangirai has seemed to be in the conduct of his love life.

Tsvangirai is right to suspect that the ZANU-PF propaganda machinery will exploit any opportunity to embarrass him and make him appear to be a thoughtless, reckless buffoon. What is puzzling is how knowing this, and having many previous examples of it, Tsvangirai still allows himself to be caught in compromising situations that at the very least reduce his personal stature. Many of the situations that have caused him so much recent and humiliatingly public embarrassment do not fit into the 'its my enemies plotting against me' category. If anything, most of them seem more like judgment lapses and holes he has dug himself into, which his enemies then merely gleefully take advantage of.

Like the rest of Zimbabwe's long-ruling political class, Tsvangirai seems to lack the humility to admit it to himself or to his followers when he has screwed up. The leader of the 'change' party is as quick to blame all his troubles, even the self-afflicted ones, on numerous un-named 'enemies.'

Worryingly, taking responsibility for personal decisions and behavior when things go wrong appears not to be seen as signs of being human and strong, but as signs of weakness that must be denied. This is the same kind of silly, childish 'macho' leadership behaviour that has caused so much pain and suffering in Zimbabwe.  The leader wants to bask in the glory of any good that happens, but deny and pin blame for any bad that happens on the 'machinations' of a never-ending list of 'enemies.' There is no time to reflect that sometimes one's biggest enemy is the one in the mirror.

Tsvangirai may yet get to occupy the presidential palace, but he will do so with less personal moral authority than he might have done before so much of his personal life was on public display. South African president Jacob Zuma is one obvious example of a man whose loose, unsafe sexual conduct did not prevent him from gaining power, but definitely has compromised how effectively he wields it.

What Bill Clinton, Jacob Zuma or Robert Mugabe got away with and whether those things are any better or worse than Tsvangirai's escapades is a very low standard by which to measure his conduct. That  is particularly so for a politician who still insists that he represents positive change, with all that is implied by that sweeping promise of a new type of leadership.

Although Tsvangirai's indiscretions have given the public a peak into areas of his life that would ordinarily be private, they raise many questions that impinge on public issues. Is he able to deal with women with respect, or are they primarily sex objects to him? In a country with a high HIV/AIDS infection rate, what are the personal and public implications of his reportedly being surprisingly blase about casual, unprotected sex?

If the money for the lavish lifestyle he now lives is from party coffers or donations, what are the public and security implications? What are his financial backers expecting in return for affording him the lifestyle of an international playboy? 

He is a fallible human being like anybody else, but Tsvangirai shows precious little sign of even merely making an effort to make his private life consistent with his public pronouncements. The basic promise of he and his party is that they are essentially different from those who have wielded power so poorly in Zimbabwe for the past thirty years. You cannot claim to be an agent of change when more of what emerges of who you really are shows you to be no different from those who you claim to want to replace.   

Tsvangirai now seems to be caught in a web of charges and counter-charges with Ms. Karimatsenga, which seems destined to keep his private life very much in the public eye, with the risk of more damaging revelations to emerge. At this point it is hard to say that the worst is over for Tsvangirai.

Tsvangirai is said to have told his followers that Elizabeth was their new mother figure. Perhaps she will eventually grow into that role and earn that level of respect. But in the short-term, it is just as likely that the messy circumstances of her becoming their leader's new spouse will cause more gossiping, sniping and derision than win her affection and authority.

There is now a pattern of bad judgments that have eaten away at a lot of the natural advantage that Tsvangirai and the MDC have had over Mugabe and ZANU-PF. It is therefore difficult to imagine that Tsvangirai can at this late stage suddenly become much more personally disciplined, or at least more discrete in his behaviour. His advisors also appear to be either weak and ineffective at counseling him honestly for his own and the party's good, or he ignores their advice. Tsvangirai's propaganda department seems completely out of its depth in marketing and defending him.     
The arrogant and reckless behaviour displayed by Tsvangirai is all the more amazing when one considers how quickly after his sampling of a few of the trappings of power they have come about. Within just three years of being a government figurehead, he has begun to display the alienating, entitlement-projecting behaviour of someone who has been in real power for much longer, to sufficiently get divorced from the everyday concerns of ordinary people. Just three years into his job as an officeholder with little effective power and he is becoming as arrogant, as aloof and as unconcerned about appearances as the corrupt old despots who have been in power for decades.

Tsvangirai and his party must hope that their die hard core supporters will remain faithful despite the recent events. They must also hope that Zimbabweans with no strong party affiliation will find all the other political options on offer so odious as to support Tsvangirai and the MDC.

But even these lowered standards of evaluating the MDC's prospects show how much the party has squandered its once unassailable lead over ZANU-PF and all others. If the MDC maintains pole position, it will increasingly be in spite of, rather than because of its leader.

Morgan Tsvangirai's carelessness sometimes makes him appear as if he is on a path of willful political destruction; eager to waste away the political capital he has built up by portraying an image of shocking personal indiscipline. 

The Zimbabwe Review 


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