Who the hell is Tsvangirai?


Until December 11, 1997, the two lifts at the 10-storey Chester House, at the corner of Third Street and Speke Avenue in Harare, opened into the reception of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions offices. Now both lifts stop at the 9th floor. One has to walk up to the 10th floor but a security guard mans the staircase and asks each visitor his or her business.

This is one of the security measures introduced after the assault on December 11 of ZCTU secretary-general Morgan Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai was assaulted by seven people, five men and two women, in his office just two days after organising one of the biggest demonstrations by workers in the country.

None of the seven has been arrested up to now. Several theories are being floated around. One is that Tsvangirai was assaulted by war veterans because the demonstrations were against tax increases that had been introduced by the government but were scrapped because of protests from workers and party cadres.

The main beneficiaries of the tax increases were war veterans who had just been awarded gratuities of $50 000 each and monthly pensions of $2 000.

Another is that he was assaulted by government agents who were not happy with the way he had embarrassed the government by staging such successful demonstrations which had drawn massive crowds which political leaders like President Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo used to draw in the early 1980s but can now only dream of or reminisce about.

Yet another theory is that his assault was politically motivated and was instigated by a third force. According to this theory, the idea was that the assault would spark riots and in the confusion, the instigators would seize control of the government.

“There are so many forces at play that you cannot discount those kind of theories,” Tsvangirai says. “My assault was politically motivated in so far as I can say that up to now police have not apprehended those people yet. How do seven people just disappear into thin air?”

After almost seven years in the doldrums as the labour movement grappled with the realities of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme introduced in 1991, which saw massive retrenchments that weakened the labour movement as well as splits believed to have been engineered by the government to break up the labour movement, Tsvangirai is back in the limelight.

And as he celebrated his 46th birthday on March 10, he must have been on cloud nine. This was exactly the opposite for the man who considers him his archenemy, President Robert Mugabe. Everything seemed to be crumbling around him when he celebrated his 74th birthday on February 21.

Only 5 000 people are said to have attended his birthday party at a function organised by the 21st February Movement in Masvingo, home of presidential aspirant Eddison Zvobgo. State media reports said about 50 000 people from the same town marched peacefully during the ZCTU-organised demonstrations of December 9.

The country’s economy is “near shambolic” according to Chris Schofield chairman of Radar Holdings in his statement accompanying the company results for the year ending December. Interest rates at around 40 percent, are back to “murderous levels”, Schofield says. Inflation, which had gone down to 14 percent in September, clocked 24.2 percent in January, a nineteen month high.

The average urban worker, though not Mugabe’s base supporter, is now openly saying he should step down.  Mugabe says he will not step down and anyone saying he should is misguided and is a traitor. But President Mugabe has been under so much pressure that he is literally being held ransom by the workers. He has had to withhold a fuel price increase for the past three months because of fear of riots similar to those that rocked the country in January while the State-owned National Oil Company of Zimbabwe (NOCZIM), the sole procurer of fuel, is losing $10 million a day.

Tsvangirai on the other hand is riding high. His popularity surged when workers throughout the country heeded the ZCTU call for a two-day stay-away on March 3 and 4 to protest a 2.5 percent increase in sales tax effected in November last year – the only tax increase introduced that month but not scrapped following the protests of December 9- as well as other long standing taxes like the 15 percent tax on pensions and the 5 percent drought levy turned development levy.

This was no mean achievement. All the odds were against him and the ZCTU. The State media completely ignored the labour movement and supported the government to the hilt, even to the extent of distorting things on the ground.

President Mugabe took every opportunity to publicly castigate the ZCTU, even asking at his birthday who the hell Tsvangirai and ZCTU president Gibson Sibanda thought they were.

“People must weigh themselves and see what they are good at,” he said in reference to Sibanda and Tsvangirai. Government ministers took turns to issue orders to workers to ignore the ZCTU call for a stay-away claiming it was illegal and that there was no reason for the stay-away since the issues raised by the ZCTU had been addressed.

Others threatened those who did not report for work and employers who closed their businesses that they would face the wrath of the law. War veterans leader Chenjerai Hunzvi said that as liberators of the country the war veterans “could very well attack whites for inciting the boycott”.

But Tsvangirai triumphed. He is now a hero because he is currently the only person who people believe can stand up to President Mugabe. Mugabe’s own lieutenants cower although some are said to be considering him a liability to the party. They kept mum when President Mugabe labelled them opportunists whose only interest was to build their own empires.

Even President Mugabe, who on his return from Maputo where he had gone to attend a one-day Southern African Development Community summit (although some say he had gone to “chill off” from the heat at home) said it was “total madness…to go ahead with the stay-away”, seemed to be conceding defeat when he said: “We cannot tolerate nonsense. If they (demonstrations/stay-away) are not going to be peaceful, then they will get it. But if it is going to be peaceful, it is all very well”.

It turned out to be peaceful, although some quarters tried to give credit for this tranquility to the police rather simply acknowledge the discipline of the workers.

Born in Buhera on 10 March 1952, Tsvangirai went to Munyira Primary School before proceeding to Silveira Secondary School in Bikita and on to Gokomere just outside Masvingo.

Buhera has had an interesting history. It has been used in the political power play to dilute opposition to President Mugabe’s leadership. Prior to independence and in the 1980 elections Buhera was a district of Masvingo Province. But it was shifted to Manicaland to dilute the Karanga influence. Kumbirai Kangai, who some regard as a Karanga and was detained with Karangas following the assassination of former ZANU chairman Herbert Chitepo in Zambia in 1975, now heads Manicaland. In Buhera itself, some people consider themselves Karanga, others Zezuru, and yet others Manyika.

Tsvangirai started work at 20 as a factory worker at Mutare Plastics and Tapes. He was there for only two years before moving to Anglo-American owned Bindura Nickel Corporation where he worked for 10 years first as a miner and then as a foreman.

It was at Bindura that he was introduced to trade unionism. He became branch chairman of the Associated Mine Workers Union, Trojan Branch in 1980 and was promoted to the national executive of the union in 1983 becoming responsible for the shopfloor representation of 2 500 workers. Two years later he had risen to vice-president of the union, the largest in the country, and was responsible for education programmes.

In 1988 he was elected secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and has been at the helm since. Tsvangirai is also secretary-general of the Southern African Trade Unions Coordinating Council, a post he was elected to in 1994. He is also chairman of the task force for the constitutional debate initiative, a trustee of the human rights body, Zimrights, and chairman of the civic group’s initiative on the health sector reform.

Tsvangirai has also had a number of scuffles with the government. Only one year after assuming office, he was detained several times- three times in 1989 alone. This turned him into a national hero as the country was still trying to establish a one-party state and the only significant opposition party was the newly formed Zimbabwe Unity Movement.

Tsvangirai was openly challenging the ZANU-PF leadership to decide whether they wanted to become capitalist or remain socialist. “They (ZANU-PF) cannot decide whether to pursue a capitalist or socialist road in more concrete terms. They want to use capitalism to develop socialism. The bureaucratic petit bourgeoisie which has the control of the state power displays many of the characteristics of a weak, and divided class, torn between the needs of capital on one hand and the need to legitimise its rule in the eyes of the workers and peasants who brought it into power on the other,” he was quoted by The Herald as saying.

His language was militant, couched in the socialist jargon that had been drilled into the ZCTU, formed in 1981 by the ruling ZANU-PF. But Tsvangirai’s leadership was changing all that. They no longer wanted to be part of the ruling party, and the government did not like it.

One year after assuming office, ZCTU president Jeffrey Mutandare, one of the older ZCTU leaders with strong leanings to the ruling party was sacked following revelations that he had abused 1 000 Swiss francs belonging to the labour movement that had been donated by the African-American Labour Centre (AALC).

Since then, Tsvangirai and Mutandare do not see eye-to-eye. Mutandare spearheaded the formation last year of a new labour federation, the Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions, which has the backing of the ruling party but it failed to attract enough support.

Although the ZCTU has weaned itself from the ruling party, Tsvangirai does not regard himself or the ZCTU as a threat to the government.

“I think it will be wrong for the ZCTU to pose a threat to the government because it is not a political party so it has no political power struggles with the government. What it does is to articulate the grievances of the workers and to make sure that those issues are dealt with.

“From time to time there might be confrontations but those confrontations are really issue-based. It will be wrong for the government to consider the ZCTU as a threat because we are a social partner. We are a social partner together with employers and we should promote the spirit of social partnership. If we deviate from social partnership to political struggles, especially political power struggles, then we miss the whole point of the trade union agenda,” he says.

The government does not swallow this. It insists that Tsvangirai and Sibanda have political agendas. This view is also being promoted by the media which has allegiance to the State. But Tsvangirai brushes it off. Nevertheless he is very much aware of the power that he now wields and that some people, both in the donor community and general population, now regard him as a political figure and may be encouraging him to turn to politics.

“There is a tendency, where there is a political vacuum, to look at any strong voice emerging as an alternative. This is a mistaken view,” he says. “if there are weak opposition parties that vacuum is not going to be filled by a trade union organisation. But if they are seeing me personally as a political force, then I am quite conscious of that, but I have not made any decision yet.

“If they (donors and others) see me as an alternative and they are trying to push me towards that, that is not in terms of my current mandate. My current mandate is to ensure that the interests that we are articulating are put forward.”

Donors are said to be backing the ZCTU to the hilt following its successful December 9 demonstrations. According to a source, even the ZCTU’s general account, which has been the organisation’s black sheep, now has a donor. The donor is said to have deposited more than $500 000 into the account following the demonstrations.

This should be a tremendous boost to the ZCTU since it is from this account that the ZCTU can pay for staging things like mass stay-aways and hire legal help. The ZCTU has no lawyer at the moment because they could not afford one. The salary of the lawyer as well as Tsvangirai’s and general staff’s are supposed to come from this account.

Three years ago, there was a furore because donors’ money for projects had been transferred into this account, though this was considered a loan.

With funds in the general account, affiliates cannot hold the labour movement to ransom by withholding their monthly contributions thus further strengthening Tsvangirai and Sibanda to make bold decisions.

But it is not only donors who are after Tsvanigirai’s support. Even some within the ruling party, fed up with President Mugabe but not bold enough to confront him, may be trying to use the labour movement to achieve their own ends.

“In politics, there are so many agendas. One cannot discount those kind of crafty tactics and strategies, but those strategies cannot be linked to me,” Tsvangirai says. “Where there is political uncertainty and a vacuum, so many forces can be at play and you cannot discount them. We will be watchful of any tendency to use us as a platform.”

But with his present mandate ending in 2000 when the ZCTU goes to congress, Tsvangirai could well be preparing himself for a political career. Already he has placed himself in key organisations which could be safe launching pads into a political career like the National Constitutional Assembly, for example.

For one, it will be difficult to win a third five-year term as ZCTU secretary general. He will have been at the helm of the labour movement for 12 years and if he seeks another term this will make it 17 years. He will not be any different from those he has been criticising for clinging on to power despite being elected.

Besides, there was wide speculation at the 1995 congress that this would be Tsvangirai’s last term. His deputy, Isidore Zindoga, is supposed to be understudying him so that he can take over in 2000. He too will not be willing to wait another five years. Besides, Zindoga is from the circles that the ruling party, if it is still in power as national elections will be held before the ZCTU congress, is said to be more comfortable with.

And having risen to national prominence at 36, there appears to be no more challenges for Tsvangirai within the ZCTU. At 48, he will be mature enough to switch to full-time politics. The only alternative would be a regional posting which would then make him a regional leader, but sources say, he is not in good books with other regional leaders who are already reported to be trying to oust him as secretary of SATUCC.

In addition, although Tsvangirai says there is no infighting within the ZCTU, things are far from being settled. One has to live on edge because of the constant bickering, rumour mongering and jostling behind the scenes.

Just like ZANU-PF which gave birth to the present labour movement, the ZCTU is being held together simply because everyone realises that they cannot do without the umbrella body. Things have been worsened by the present popularity of the labour movement. Everyone is clinging on to it despite the differences.

Sibanda, once considered a docile leader, has now woken up to the power that the labour movement wields and is now taking every opportunity to sell himself as a national leader. He comes from the right part of the country, Matabeleland, where people, particularly the youth, are looking for a credible leader to fill the vacuum left by the former ZAPU leaders who are now regarded as sell-outs because it is now upon them that Mugabe is relying totally to stay in power.

Sibanda’s only problem is that he was regarded as being too close to John Nkomo, a former Labour Minister and now Minister of Local Government. John Nkomo and Dumiso Dabengwa are fighting for the leadership of Matabeleland once the “old man” Joshua Nkomo is gone.

Tsvangirai’s deputy, Isidore Zindoga, also has higher ambitions, and considers himself the next secretary-general. His own union, the Leather Union, is too small and has been losing membership through retrenchments.

The other deputy Nicholas Mudzengerere, one of the longest serving trade unionists, seems quite happy where he is. He has managed to unseat his Catering Union’s general secretary and is now at the helm. That should be good enough for him.

ZCTU vice-president Isaac Matongo, once considered to be very vibrant, has lost his own base. He was demoted by his own Engineering Union.

The second vice-president, Shangwa Chifamba, probably the oldest trade union leader, is just too old to be considered a threat by anyone.

Tsvangirai could stay on. He has the youth, stamina and charisma but his biggest problem is that he has surrounded himself with “dead wood”. He was even said to be thinking of getting rid of academics by creating a research institute.

But as a politician, he could be better off as he seems to have vision. Youth will also play a crucial party as he has new ideas. But ideas might only be good on paper, when one moves to Parliament it becomes something else.

Labour Minister Florence Chitauro, at one time vice-president of the ZCTU, was brought into the government ostensibly to represent workers views but she is the one creating hell for them. Another former ZCTU vice-president Edward Njekesa has been conspicuous by his silence. He is more comfortable talking about squabbles in Chitungwiza.


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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