Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai File picture: Reuters
Independent Foreign Service’s Basildon Peta caught up with Morgan Tsvangirai in Harare before his recent whisking off to South Africa for medical help over a condition his party says is not related to his cancer, and quizzed him about his resurgent confidence that he will now achieve what he has failed to attain in nearly 20 years.

Peta: Let us start with the state of your health?

Tsvangirai: Well, I was diagnosed last year with colon cancer and made that public. I have gone through operations to remove the affected part and have gone through chemotherapy.

I am now waiting for the final assessment as to the extent of the infection. But my experience has been a personal journey. It came as a surprise. One would not even have noticed the infection. I am happy that the medical staff who attended to me were professional you can’t look at me and say it has had a debilitating effect.

Cancer is cancer, and if not taken care of it may mutate. I am happy that my final check will give me a clean bill of health as far as the cancer is concerned. I feel fine and restored.

Peta: The health of leading politicians is treated as a state secret in most African countries and your nemesis Robert Mugabe is routinely in and out of Singapore for medical checks but his ailment(s) have never been disclosed. What prompted you to be different and publicly declare your cancer affliction, knowing very well that your opponents would use that against you to score political points, as they have been doing?

Tsvangirai: The people I lead need to know the truth about my state of health. I could not, therefore, keep quiet over such a serious development. I needed to prepare the nation as to my state of health.

Peta: Are you thus ready to take on Mugabe and his ruthless Zanu-PF juggernaut in next year’s elections while you are slowed by poor health?

Tsvangirai: Why not? If I feel I am no longer able to do it, I will take a position. I feel motivated, I have overcome it (the cancer). I have just undertaken a month-and-a-half tour of the country to set the agenda for elections and agenda for alliance building. I feel motivated to go on the campaign.

Peta: But surely you are sitting in your “Last Chance Saloon”? Many say it’s either you win the upcoming presidential elections or it’s never, particularly in view of your health?

Tsvangirai: Yes it is a very critical national election. Given the state of economic and social erosion we have experienced, it’s only fair that people have a new direction, a direction which only the MDC can give. There is a national feeling for change. We have a national crisis around President Mugabe’s age. The two of us have been in a duel for many years, but suffice it to say that age has a limit. He will be 94 when we fight the upcoming elections. He surely cannot win.

Peta: The situation in Zimbabwe cannot, surely, get any more worse than it is, and it represents fertile ground for any opposition to flourish and thrive, yet the opposition in Zimbabwe is timid and almost dormant, with no protest actions whatsoever. In fact, it is Zanu-PF that seems active and visible on the ground. Why?

Tsvangirai: One of the realities of our situation is the repressive infrastructure that Mugabe has built over the past four decades. That infrastructure has had an effect on the people. Zimbabweans are reluctant to create something that results in instability as people know that they will be victims and will create a worse situation from the current ruins into which we are enmeshed. They would rather wait for elections and achieve democratic change.

Peta: Surely, isn’t that self-serving justification for your incompetence to organise people to rebel against a regime that has plunged one of Africa’s most promising countries into a state of squalor and penury?

Tsvangirai: One should not prejudge Zimbabweans as docile. They are very proactive, as in any other nation. My role is to lead Zimbabweans into achieving democratic change through peaceful means and not through violence. We stand for democracy and not violence

Peta: You have won elections before and you have not been allowed to take power, as was the case in 2008 when you were declared winner in the first round of presidential elections before Zanu-PF-inspired violence left hundreds of your supporters dead, forcing you to withdraw from a scheduled run-off poll. Why are you so confident the same won’t happen in 2018, even if you win, because that has been Mugabe’s modus operandi?

Tsvangirai: There is a serious paradigm shift Circumstances have changed since 2008 when we won and we were not allowed to get power. The Tsvangirai of 2008 is different from the Tsvangirai of 2018. We went through the inclusive government and 85% of Zimbabweans appreciated our role in improving their dire suffering Circumstances have changed

Peta: What circumstances have changed?

Tsvangirai: Mugabe is old. He can’t become younger. Zanu-PF is imploding. The opposition is converging. Those are positive developments.

Peta: Was it a mistake for you to have gone into the GNU (government of national unity) after the 2008 debacle?

Tsvangirai: It was a strategic move that rescued the country. It was a good move. Even though we won the elections in 2008, for me it was not about going to State House, walking on top of dead bodies of Zimbabweans who were succumbing to hardships. We agreed to a GNU to save the country. Zimbabweans saw that as a relief.

Yes, there were many outstanding issues that were not resolved in the GNU but that was because of Zanu-PF intransigenceGiven the state of the economy and the suffering of the people, we put the country first ahead of our personal interests. So I have no regrets about the GNU.

Peta: But it is like a cycle that you fight elections, win them, fail to gain power and then embark on visits to regional leaders, seeking their help to rein in Mugabe. You never get their help because critics say SADC is a supine body and some of the regional leaders have clearly bought into the narrative that you are a lackey of the West. There is surely nothing to suggest that that won’t happen again?

Tsvangirai: We will win the elections, and there will be transfer of power. The gun can no longer control the politics of the country. We need legitimacy to restore confidence in the country. Zimbabwe has been turned into an informal economy. People are suffering. The will of the people cannot be resisted or trampled upon any further

Peta: Aren’t you being naive, Mr Tsvangirai? You will still be dealing with the same Robert Mugabe who murdered hundreds of your supporters after you won the first round of voting in 2008, forcing you to withdraw from the run-off vote?

Tsvangirai: The dynamics have changed. For Mugabe, it surely cannot be business as usual. Zimbabweans are united in our quest for change.

Peta: You have repeatedly complained about the administration of elections in Zimbabwe. You surely should have used your time in the GNU to try to improve the electoral environment, yet you seem to have been distracted by the trappings of office and lost focus?

Tsvangirai: The MDC was part of the government of national unity. The MDC was not the government by ourselves only. When you are in coalition, you don’t implement your own policies alone. We improved the economy, got a new constitution, focused on democratisation by breaking the Zanu-PF political hegemony, improved social services, among many other achievements in the GNU.

Desktop criticism will always be there but ask the people who benefited from our presence in the GNU. People are actually saying, ‘Why not create another GNU so that we can have relief because the economic situation now has deteriorated so badly to surpass what we saw in 2008 when the economy completely collapsed’.

Peta: And so will you consider another GNU if Mugabe invited you into one to resolve the current economic crisis?

Tsvangirai: Remember, the crisis we now have did not come as a result of the MDC going into the GNU but because Mugabe rigged the last election in 2013. Mugabe then took the country backwards. There was no way a party that had lost in 2008 could win in 2013 with a high score. There were major malpractices in that election. Even friends of Mugabe said they could not legitimise that election of 2013.

Peta: But that’s exactly my point, that instead of using your presence in the GNU to fight for electoral reform, you seem to have gotten trapped in the niceties of office and forgot that elections in Zimbabwe can again be rigged in future?

Tsvangirai: It is going to be different in 2018. Youths will be the game-changer. Sixty percent of the Zimbabwean electorate are under 40. Mugabe has created a serious discord between the liberation generation and the digital generation. The latter will define the future. In addition, there are technical changes under which the 2018 elections will be held which will militate against rigging.

Peta: So we should not expect to hear you complaining that the elections have been rigged come 2018?

Tsvangirai: We have been campaigning for the introduction of the BVR (biometric voter registration) system because it eliminates electoral shenanigans. It will help reduce the number of manipulations that will be possible. We are nonetheless raising technical issues regarding the BVR and the manner in which it is being implemented

But there are other concerns of violence, intimidation that would need to be taken care of for us to have free and fair elections. We are concerned with the ZEC (Zimbabwe Electoral Commission) secretariat. ZEC has not demonstrated its independence in the by-elections held so far.

We, in conjunction with other opposition parties, have been campaigning for electoral reforms.

We have started focusing early on electrical reforms and not wait and cry foul at the end. If legitimate electoral reforms are implemented to give expression to the free will of the Zimbabwean people, then yes, you will not hear us complaining

Peta: Are your concerns and cries for electoral reforms being listened to?

Tsvangirai: They cannot be ignored. We will continue raising them in the right forums. The only challenge in the SADC is that the countries we look forward to set democratic standards are themselves in crisis

Peta: What is the state of your party? Some say the MDC is no longer the opposition juggernaut that it used to be?

Tsvangirai: We are mobilising and re-energising. There may be individuals who have broken away, but the party is still intact. The MDC is tried and tested and without it there are many who realise that there will be no future for the opposition in Zimbabwe.

Peta: What about the perception so often used against you that the MDC is a creation and puppet of the West?

Tsvangirai: That is cheap propaganda advanced by people who don’t have the interests of the people of the country at heart

If that was the case, why do we continue to enjoy popular support in Zimbabwe?

Peta: You have either entered into or attempted to enter into electoral alliances with other opposition parties including Mugabe’s sacked former deputy Joice Mujuru. But these alliances seem to be short on detail?

Tsvangirai: Forging alliances is a process and not an event. The alliances entail working together to win the elections as a united opposition front.

We still have to negotiate the actual terms. We are pro-alliance not because we can’t contest on our own, but because we want to motivate the country. The MOUs we have signed are a first step and then actual negotiations must still take place. We need to have an alliance agreement, policy agreement and governance agreement.

Peta: You have signed MOUs for an electoral alliance with only a few parties, yet there are over 50 political parties. Doesn’t that affect the cohesion of any opposition alliance to take on Mugabe?

Tsvangirai: We do due diligence on potential alliance partners. Some of the parties have questionable institutional capacity to win even one seat. We have to make the right assessments of all potential partners in developing a solid coalition.

Peta: On a scale of 1 to 100%, what are the chances of Zimbabwe finally having a President Morgan Tsvangirai next year?

Tsvangirai: At least 80%. There is no way a 94-year-old Mugabe, who has run Zimbabwe into the ground, can beat me at the polls. I have won the elections before. I will win convincingly this time.

Peta: Yes, you may win and then be co-opted into another GNU?

Tsvangirai: Zimbabwe does not need a GNU.

It needs a legitimate government to emerge from a free and fair election.

Peta: Your prediction of victory is obviously based on the presumption that you will be the leader of the grand coalition of opposition parties that you are negotiating with?

Tsvangirai: It’s obvious that is what we will obtain because the MDC is the only party tried and tested in elections with MPs, councillors, mayors and other political officers. Other political parties (like Mujuru’s recently formed NPP) are still speculative and the extent of their support is not well known. But working together is what we need

Peta: Let’s suppose you win, what will be your first acts in office, particularly in the traditional first 100 days?

Tsvangirai: We need to change and transform the governance structure. We need an immediate end to the one man rule, governance with impunity culture that is pervasive under Mugabe. No more instances of people disappearing because they disagree with the ruling party.

We have a bureaucracy that does not distinguish between the government and party. We need to look at the economy. There is currently no economy to talk aboutThere is no investor confidence in the economy It needs a serious rehabilitation programme to attract investment.

We need to look at the rehabilitation of various sectors including infrastructure, health, education etc.

The actual work cannot be done in the first 100 days, but the policy framework of putting Zimbabwe back on track must be put in place within that period, including re-engagement with the international community.

Independent Foreign Service