Get IOL's cool new iPad app...
If Tendai Biti has many faces, it is because he is versatile as well as changeable. He says his is "a story of struggle". As the secretary-general of Zimbabwe's oppostion Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), he has a date with destiny.
Last week he dazzled an audience at a Wits Public Conversations forum with his chilling run-down of a country facing a run-off for the election in which the MDC beat Robert Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party.
The bizarre upshot of Zimbabwe's rocketing inflation is that a packet of sausages costs ZIM$1,8-billion; a loaf of bread costs ZIM$300-million and Mazoe (a powdered orange drink) costs ZIM$2,5-billion for a 5kg bag. He recalled that when he was at boarding school it cost 20 cents for three months' supply of Mazoe.
It is a long time since he was a boy in Form 1 who knew he would not lead "an ordinary life" as an adult. But he is no rich man's son. He was born on August 6 1966, in the working class suburb of Dzivarasekwa in Harare. He was lucky enough to come into the world laden with gifts - of intellect and of oratory. He is also a champion chess player, a singer, a great reader and, according to his peers, an excellent strategist.
When I interview him at a Sandton hotel, Biti is not the same man I met at the Wits forum. To begin with, he is wearing a cap that renders him barely recognisable, and his charisma is on hold. Either way, this lawyer makes a compelling argument for the world to heed the call to stop "the madness".
Evidence of his own nervous condition lies in a tic in one of his hands. "I am frustrated, I want to go home," he says. "But the leadership insists that I stay here."
Augustine Chihuri, Zimbabwe's Police Commissioner, has threatened Biti with unspecified action when he returns to Zimbabwe. Chihuri accused him of illegally declaring the results of the March 29 elections and "urging and abetting political violence".
In a menacing letter to Biti, which was published in The Herald newspaper, Zanu-PF's mouthpiece, Chihuri wrote: "What is very conspicuous in the Zimbabwean political arena today is your prominent role in urging and abetting political violence through unbridled rhetoric of incitement.
"You know for sure, your violation of the country's laws by declaring presidential results which was, in deed, in contravention of Section 110 of the Electoral Act, Chapter 2:13 and is still to be attended to by the police." Chihuri has warned that "the swift arm of the law will always catch up with the evil doer".
Biti says Zimbabwean prisons are desperately overcrowded. He has been detained "every year since 2000". His gruelling report, on behalf of the Zimbabwean Human Rights Lawyers, of the March 11 beatings and torture at Machipisa Prison, where 40 leaders of opposition parties and civil society activists were arrested en route to the Save Zimbabwe Campaign prayer meeting at Zimbabwe Grounds in Highfield, Harare, is deeply affecting.
"When we were being beaten on 11 March they were enjoying it and competing to beat Morgan ," he said at Wits.
He mentioned that Grace Kwinjeh, a member of the MDC's national executive committee, took the brunt of the beatings in that room.
Kwinjeh, who lost part of an ear during a beating with a metal rod, says Biti's bravery is not in question. "Just being the secretary-general of the MDC over the past five years requires bravery, and it takes great leadership courage to deliver the kind of result we did in the election - as well as a great deal of work and administration."
Biti says Zanu-PF's military intelligence is targeting key players in the MDC structures - such as Tonderai Ndira, a young MDC leader who was recently killed.
Since the March 29 election, more than 50 people have been killed. Harvest House, the MDC's headquarters in Harare, is flooded with refugees, including women and babies, who are fleeing Mugabe's war. Biti is Gandhian in his approach: the MDC's principled non-violence is symbolised by the open hand of the logo, as opposed to the closed fist of revolution.
"There will be retribution. And when it comes, the MDC, a democratic movement, will become irrelevant. The youths are radical. Please do something before there is a catastrophe", is his appeal to the international community.
"There cannot be a run-off because we won this election. And therefore by agreeing to participate in the run-off we are supporting the kleptocracy. But there has to be a political solution. We have to create conditions for the rehabilitation of our country.
"But the fact the MDC has defeated the tyrant; the perpetrator of genocide, is remarkable. Especially since Mugabe has instilled the idea in the psyche of the nation that we are not people; we are "sellouts", we are like the cockroaches, the name the Hutus gave to the Tutsis ."
Last week, Biti warned, presciently, that the "xenophobic violence" in South Africa would destabilise the borders of neighbouring countries as it has done in South Africa.
"You mark my words. We know the cause of xenophobia, it is President Mugabe. People are being killed in Zimbabwe."
Critics of the MDC, who believe the movement is indeed in the pockets of "the West", are watching Biti. It is widely believed that if Tsvangirai does not become Zimbabwe's president, Biti will. Would he like this? "Absolutely not," he says.
"I love the law. I may stay for three years in the party, sorting out the mess." At Wits, he said: "When we craft a solution there will have to be a transitional national healing. There has to be transitional justice. You cannot have a Kenyan solution which subordinates the victor.
"You have to be careful. Mugabe must be promoted upstairs. Give him guarantees of personal safety and tell him, if you want to play golf with Kenneth Kaunda, by all means do so. There can be no vindictiveness. The people of Zimbabwe cannot have an elite pact.
"The core of our struggle has been the issue of constitution: we demand a people-driven constitution - by the people for the people. You have to give the same guarantees for everyone. You cannot tell people to forgive. We need to write a constitution based on mistrust.
"We are going to put a limit on the terms of office. Zimbabwe is at a crossroads. The issue of land is critical, the issue of compensation must be dealt with. We have to look at the farms that have been nationalised then deal with the demand side of land reform. Are you going to give back the white farmers their land? We will have to rationalise this on the principle of need and ability: do you need it? Can you farm it? We cannot have multiple ownership. There will be voluntary surrender, the return of the land market."
Biti admits that the MDC is "not a perfect movement", that it has had to root out corruption and that the split between Tsvangirai supporters and supporters of Arthur Mutambara was "tragic".
Yes, there has been violence, but the split was not caused by this. Zanu-PF's ugliness has contaminated everything in Zimbabwe.
Biti says it is well known that Tsvangirai "listens too much" to what others say.
How well does Biti listen?
Kwinjeh says when he disagrees with what you are saying, he does not listen. "Tendai has to improve on gender equality. We, the women, think he can do more. Let's deal with patriarchy, I think." She also says he is a brilliant lawyer and a principled leader who has stood by Tsvangirai when many have not done so.
Rehad Desai, a film-maker who knew Biti when he was a student leader in the 1980s, says Biti's hardcore Marxist-Leninist line was modified and adapted to the Zimbabwean situation when they met.
His leadership qualities were already on show. He was the leader of the study group, the International Socialists of Zimbabwe.
"When the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions was flexing its muscles, we began to form links and joined the MDC."
Patrick Bond, director of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, who was completing a PhD on Zimbabwe in the late 1980s, says: "You could see that Tendai could one day become the president."
Biti's old leftie comrades from the heady 1980s worry that the United States and United Kingdom will turn Zimbabwe into a neoliberal enclave. He insists that he has received not a bean from either country.
Many remember him as a firebrand: "I threw stones at Mugabe," Biti himself recalls. Bond says that "Zanu-PF was brilliantly outfoxed during Thabo Mbeki's mediation in the run-up to the election. Some activists - like National Constitutional Assembly leader Lovemore Madhuku - called the talks a 'sell-out', and yet the trick of immediately transmitting cellphone photos of official results from polling stations was the neatest bit of political jujitsu I've ever seen, and may make the crucial difference in Zimbabwe's democratisation."
Biti is willing to defend himself against accusations that he himself has sold out. How could the country's promising young human rights lawyer be bought by a top-drawer commercial law firm, ask those who decry his partnership in Honey & Blackenberg.
He shrugs off the idea that "the real turning point came in 1997" when he defended the Standard Bank in a labour case. "The Standard bank is a client of my law firm and as such I was obliged to defend it. I am the lawyer who represents more trade unions than any other lawyer in Zimbabwe.
"Very few people are using the courts and the law as I have done in favour of workers. I specialise in constitutional law and labour law, but I end up doing everything that has to be done. I am a lawyer's lawyer, a kind of advocate. Law is my passion," he says. "I have been fortunate that everything I have been doing as a lawyer, highlights Zimbabwean history."
Miles Larmer, an academic at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, remembers Biti's determination at university to make a difference and his impatience with those far lefties "who stayed up talking all night, achieving nothing".
Biti's appointment to the presidency would be welcomed by Themba Nolotshungu, of the conservative Free Market Foundation, who says: "I would expect them to be more centrist and more inclined towards free market and to understand to what extent the state would be involved in terms of economic policy. They are pragmatic, rather than ideologically driven."
But those on the other side of the fence accuse Biti of selling his socialism down the river. He responds emphatically: "I am still a socialist. I have not changed. Socialism is not an ideology of poverty, but of maximum production and equitable distribution."
Desai says: "Tendai is still with Morgan because he still believes in socialism and the working class and the peasantry of Zimbabwe as a social force as it was before."
Biti refers me to the MDC manifesto, in which he had a hand, and which he says is no neoliberal document. He refers me in particular to the MDC's economic doctrine " which says let us cross our own destiny so that the imperialists do not have a say in our life; our economy is so vulnerable. Let us look to outsiders on our own terms. We will pay back debt owed by Zimbabwe. The manifesto is very clear that we carry out an audit and we will repute all the odious debt".
He is referring to the debt carried over from Zanu-PF, and to the international moral principle that has established that this need not be paid by a new democracy.
Despite Chihuri's menacing, Biti will continue to speak to an international audience, as well as to an African audience, about assisting his country.
He says: "We will allow dual citizenship. We have shown we can defeat a dictator and one of the biggest challenges of these struggles is that it is easy to mirror that which one is trying to remove."
Desai describes Biti as a loner. He says Biti's dedication to the struggle has cost him his relationship with the mother of his child.
He is moody, saddened, yet he allows himself to be humoured as he gears up for his date with fate. He says: "I am ready to face what is waiting for me."