Toppling a Dictator


Morgan Tsvangirai speaks in Sydney last week.

Morgan Tsvangirai, Leader of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change, was in Australia for a week as a guest of the Australian Government under its Special Visitor’s Program. He spoke to Ginny Stein in Sydney. Considering the situation in Zimbabwe, how is President Robert Mugabe still able to stay in office?

Morgan Tsvangirai: Well it is certainly not his popularity. I think Mugabe is able to stay in office because of sheer violence and repressive rule. That’s the bottom line. I mean, how else do dictators stay in power? Mugabe has gone from a democratically elected leader in 1980 to an authoritarian dictator who is now ruling the country by force and foul means. He has created a structure of governance that is directly answerable only to him ignoring the existence of Cabinet, and ignoring all other democratic institutions like Parliament.

When Mugabe ruled democratically, he was loved by the people. But as soon as there was a challenge to his power, in the February 2000 referendum, when the whole nation voted against his proposed changes to the Constitution, he said, ‘Argh, now you don’t want me, you had better live with me forever.’ That’s his attitude.

Throughout your visit to Australia you have been very upbeat, and optimistic that change is imminent in Zimbabwe. How is it going to come? Is it going to be through negotiation or through the ballot?

Change can come in Zimbabwe in two ways. It can come through a negotiated process which then guarantees a democratic outcome; or it can come through violence. We have resisted the violent option although we’ve been on the receiving end of violent reprisals from this regime.

But who knows? If Mugabe’s pillars of support begin to have no confidence in him, because of the militarisation of his Administration, it may reach a point where the army may feel that ‘we don’t need you Robert Mugabe, because we are in charge.’ That is a very dangerous option, but hopefully we can have a democratic transition from this dictatorship.

What would the removal of President Mugabe bring?

It is insufficient for the democratisation of the country. What is needed is not only the removal of Mugabe but also a total transformation of the political culture and institutional framework upon which that governance is premised. So yes, I know that people are obsessed with Mugabe the personality, but really it is beyond the individual. It is about how we transform, how we democratise society so that there is a level of tolerance, there are freedoms and there are basic economic opportunities for everyone.

You name a number of key issues that need to be addressed in Zimbabwe in particular, reforms to the justice system, the police and the army. How interlinked are Mugabe, his ruling ZANU-PF Party and power in Zimbabwe?

ZANU-PF has a political hegemony that permeates the establishment and all institutions of power in the country. It may be the army, the police, the judiciary, or the civil service. All these institutions are there through the patronage of ZANU-PF or, at least, the patronage of Mugabe.

The talks that are underway at the moment between you and the Zimbabwean Government are spearheaded by South African President Thabo Mbeki as chief negotiator. How confident are you that he’ll be able to negotiate a way through?

Well it is one of the options available for resolving the crisis through a negotiated settlement. How optimistic am I? I am cautiously optimistic, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to put all our eggs in one basket or that this is the only means through which we are we going to get that negotiated settlement. People have to mobilise, they have to continue applying the pressure nationally and internationally.

African leaders at the African Union Summit in Ghana last month feted Robert Mugabe. Why are so many African leaders so enamoured of him?

There is a sense of solidarity amongst African leaders in spite of the character of any individual. Remember that race and land are issues that are very emotive in Africa. Mugabe evokes those emotions every time he’s got a platform and a lot of people may actually sympathise with him. In spite of his actions, they may actually accommodate him, and be in solidarity with him.

He’s more of hero to them, isn’t he?

Yes, to a certain extent, as I said, he invokes a very serious conflict of emotions. On the one hand, there are people who look up to him as a hero. On the other, because of the facts on the ground, because of the Black-on-Black violence that he has unleashed in Zimbabwe, they actually doubt whether he is a hero.

You are on the record as saying African leaders play to different audiences.

What I was saying was that they are very reluctant to be told what to do about African problems. And so they will appear to be defiant about international opinion, especially if it is expressed by a Western nation, because of our colonial history.

But I think that they are equally aware that the pessimistic view about African leadership has to be resolved. They have to rise above this pessimism and provide the leadership that is necessary. And they know that, at the end of the day, if they ignore problems or whitewash them, it will be left for the rest of the world to pick up the pieces. So they are quite conscious about the international babysitting that’s been happening for years. They are very, very frank and direct amongst themselves.

President Meki is taking a leading role in attempting to influence change in Zimbabwe, but his term ends in 2009. How linked is real change to the end of his term?

Well, it is not his personal responsibility; but I think it is a South African responsibility. If Mbeki goes, another leader will replace him. I am sure the next man, or the next woman, who will be South African President will have to take on the responsibility of resolving this issue. South Africa cannot escape it they are part of the solution.

An important part?

They are the crucial part. They have the leverage. We depend on them that’s why three and a half million Zimbabweans have run to South Africa.

How is it that Zimbabwe has been allowed to go along like this for so long? You talk about this being a major international human rights issue, but no one has really stepped in here. Why is it that?

Well it depends what kind of intervention. What I can tell you is that they have stepped in. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) extraordinary meeting in March 2007 in Tanzania was a response to the crisis in Zimbabwe. Never before have they met to discuss a particular crisis like Zimbabwe. So, I think that there are slow but positive steps that are being taken which might not produce the requisite result immediately, but I think the right steps are being taken to make people accountable for their actions.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), of which you are President, is currently split into two factions, how damaging is this?

I don’t believe I am a factional leader and it hurts me when someone writes ‘Tsvangirai faction,’ or ‘Mutambara faction.’ We didn’t form the MDC to create factions, we created a movement that was going to challenge the status quo and move towards a democratic objective. And on that basis we are unified. The people of Zimbabwe are unified around that goal.

As far as the so-called split is concerned it was an outcome of our own success as a Party. The people of Zimbabwe have made their choice. They do not want a divided opposition and as a result we work together with our colleagues, and we will sit there as one. What is critical is that we must have free and fair election conditions that allow Zimbabweans to choose their leadership.

You have said that when the MDC was formed people thought there would be a sprint towards change, but it has proved to be a marathon. How much longer do you have to run?

As long as it takes.


No, no no certainly within a reasonable timeframe. There is an opportunity in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, in March 2008. Why can’t that platform be a platform that will really bring real change to Zimbabwe? That’s what I am talking about. Obviously, if those efforts to achieve change by March next year are frustrated, then we don’t give up we continue with the struggle until change is achieved.

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