By Leo Cendrowicz
Morgan Tsvangirai is a man under pressure. Ahead of next year’s elections the Zimbabwean prime minister is trying to deliver a new constitution, revive a troubled economy and manage a difficult relationship with the country’s president, Robert Mugabe.
Yet one of Tsvangirai’s main concerns right now is keeping his love life from the headlines amid accusations of serial dating, illegitimate children and bigamy.
Three weeks ago Tsvangirai, 60, was forced to cancel his high-profile wedding because a judge ruled he was customarily married to another woman. Tsvangirai, 60, and Elizabeth Macheka, 35, went ahead with a lavish ceremony but did not sign the legal marriage register after a judge warned that it could lead to bigamy charges from his 12-day marriage last year to Locardia Karimatsenga, 39.
Speaking to the Guardian in his Harare residence, Tsvangirai said he had been the victim of a smear campaign. “I had two or three relationships and that was blown out of proportion,” he said. “If two consenting adults have a relationship what is wrong with that? I didn’t go and rape somebody. I didn’t go and take somebody’s wife.”
He said the media frenzy over his private life since his wife’s death in a car accident in 2009 had been fed by his political enemies. “They knew they could not pin me down on anything so they had to find something that they could point to as if they were angels. Some of these people who are writing about my so-called sexual scandals have a string of girlfriends, a string of wives and children. We fell apart, as human beings fall apart in relationships. It is natural. But to call it a scandal is a bit exaggerated.”
Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), heads a coalition government in an uneasy alliance with Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party. Despite the bitter rivalry between the two, Tsvangirai said Mugabe was still needed to help Zimbabwe transform into a functioning democracy. “Mugabe is part of the solution because of his grip on the party and the institutions of the state,” Tsvangirai said. “For the sake of his legacy and the sake of the future stability I hope that he behaves in a manner which observes the constitution.”
He said, perhaps hopefully, that Mugabe’s 88 years were catching up with him and he was contemplating retirement. “With his age he’s frail,” he said. “To tell you honestly Mugabe is not in a fighting mood to retain power. I think he has long given up that. He knows that time and tide has gone beyond him.”
Tsvangirai would not confirm reports that Mugabe often falls asleep during cabinet meetings but he admitted that the president, whose eyesight is fading, now only receives verbal briefing on key issues. “I don’t think he has that staying power to study, read and develop,” he said. “That time is gone.”
In 2008 Tsvangirai – leading in the presidential poll – pulled out in the face of brutal violence against his supporters. Tsvangirai himself was almost killed in 1997 when Zanu-PF henchmen tried to throw him out of a tenth floor window. But he insists he holds no rancour towards Mugabe. “He nearly killed me but what’s the use?” he said. “The way I was beaten and left for dead, I will never recover that, even if I were to beat him to the same extent. We learn a lot from reconciliation.”
“We have gone through an evolving relationship from very polarised positions – even you might say a love-hate relationship – because at some point we both realised we needed each other to resolve the critical national crisis we were facing.”
Asked about Mugabe’s legacy, he said it would be a “mixed fortune”: “from a hero to a villain and back again to someone who has managed a transition”.
If Mugabe is losing his grip on power at home, the tide is also turning among Zimbabwe’s neighbours. “He is now a liability to the region. And therefore they are asking if supporting Mugabe is really in the best interests of the region,” Tsvangirai said.
Zimbabwe has been subject to international sanctions for the past decade but the European Union says it will suspend most of them once a credible referendum is held on a new constitution – which could be as soon as next month. But Tsvangirai said the sanctions should be lifted already. “They are no longer an instrument of leverage,” Tsvangirai said. “The continuing restrictions are actually stifling any further reform.”
Since Tsvangirai became prime minister in February 2009 much has changed in Zimbabwe. Inflation, measured at 500 trillion percent in 2008, is now under 5%, mainly due to Zimbabwe adopting the American dollar. The economy, which halved in size in the decade to 2009, has grown by more than 7% a year since then – although unemployment is still estimated at 80% and millions are still dependent on food aid. “Leo Cendrowicz, the hyperinflation is gone,” Tsvangirai said, eager to highlight his successes. But he knows that the real test of the country’s progress, and his leadership, will take place next year, when the country goes to the polls.