The meaning of ED’s visit to Tsvangirai

By Alex Magaisa (Writing in The Big Saturday Read)

On Friday 5 January 2018, Zimbabwe’s new leader, President Emmerson Mnangagwa threw a surprise for the nation when he paid a visit to veteran opposition leader, and former Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai at his home in Harare. Tsvangirai is unwell and currently receiving treatment for colon cancer.

The visit has generated a lot of interest and debate among Zimbabweans. It is also reported that Mnangagwa announced a belated pay-off package to Tsvangirai, who served as Prime Minister in the coalition government between 2009 and 2013. It includes the government mansion he has been occupying since his days as Prime Minister, a monthly pension and settlement of all medical expenses. This package, which was long overdue after his service to the nation, should come as a huge relief to the ailing veteran who has given so much to the cause of democracy.

The visit by Mnangagwa to a political rival has drawn a lot of comments and interpretations. There is praise in some quarters, where the visit is seen as humane, compassionate and exemplary. However, there is also a highly sceptical quarter, which sees the visit as a cunning political move by calculating political operator with an eye at the next elections.

These different strands of interpretation are to be expected in an environment which is highly polarised. Even if something looks pleasant, people have learnt to peer behind, checking if it is just a veil for something sinister.  This BSR (Big Saturday Read) considers these various strands of argument and examines the implications of this visit.

Compassionate leader?

A popular view is that the visit earns Mnangagwa some significant points in the political market as a compassionate leader who cares for the health and welfare of his fellow politician and former Prime Minister. This is notwithstanding the fact that they are political rivals. For many, it represents a good show of leadership and statesmanship. With a history of acrimony between ZANU PF and the MDC-T and the bitterness which characterised the relationship between former President Mugabe and Tsvangirai, it is hardly surprising that the visit was a pleasant and welcome surprise for many people. It is because of Zimbabwe’s toxic politics that something which should be normal has assumed extraordinary proportions. But when you live in a desert, every drop of water that falls is celebrated.

However, as others have pointed out, it is not the first time that a sitting president has visited an ailing opposition leader. Mugabe visited Tsvangirai in hospital in 2009 after the latter was involved in a car crash which killed his wife, Susan. People also praised Mugabe for his show of compassion. However, circumstances were different. It would have been odd, awkward and suspicious if Mugabe had not done so since he and Tsvangirai had just begun working together in the coalition stitched up after the farcical 2008 election. The nuance in Mnangagwa’s visit is that there is no direct working relationship and there was no expectation for him to visit Tsvangirai. Circumstances did not compel him to do it. He could have ignored the situation and it probably wouldn’t have been an issue, which can’t be said of Mugabe’s situation in 2009. This is not to devalue what Mugabe did, but merely to demonstrate why Mnangagwa’s gesture has received wider acclaim. There are a lot of people who support and sympathise with Tsvangirai after his contribution to the democratic struggle and democracy and they are hurting because of his debilitating illness. Some may be comforted by Mnangagwa’s show of compassion and respect to their leader. Mnangagwa may have won over some hearts among the fence-sitters.


For many people, the positive quality of the visit was encapsulated by MDC-T co-Vice President Nelson Chamisa who said what the president did was the African thing to do. The spirit of Ubuntu includes a show of brotherhood and compassion for one’s fellow human being. Neighbour looks after neighbour because they are all bound by their humanity. Those who believe in these traditional values will probably have been charmed by the Mnangagwa’s performance. This is what ordinary folks do in their day to day lives – when a neighbour is unwell, no matter their previous disputes, they go and visit them. When there is a funeral in the village, it is everybody’s funeral and the all converge at the homestead of the bereaved, helping them to get through their grieving moments. When these ordinary folks see what Mnangagwa has done towards Tsvangirai, they see one of their own, doing no more and no less than they would do. He will appear just like one of them which is obviously good for his prospects at the elections.


Yet, ironically, it is this potential advantage that could accrue to Mnangagwa which is also the cause of cynicism over his visit to Tsvangirai. Some were not amused by the cameras and the fact that images of a visibly frail Tsvangirai were published. They take a more cynical view, seeing this as a public relations stunt for political mileage in an election year. According to this cynical view, it’s merely a case of one using his rival’s predicament to win hearts and minds as a seemingly compassionate leader. They argue that the picture of the two political rivals shows one who is fit to run the country and another is in poor health which will affect the electorate’s view. In this cynical view, there is nothing good in Mnangagwa’s trip to see Tsvangirai except pursuit of his own agenda.

This cynicism is, in large part, a result of the toxic nature of our politics over the past few decades – part of Mugabe’s legacy. There has been so much vitriol exchanged between politicians and violence meted upon supporters that for some people, there is nothing good that can come from politicians, especially from ZANU PF. Having been hurt many times, the default mode of some people is to believe that there is always a hidden and usually sinister agenda to every politician’s project. This is partly why there is a quarter that is cynical about the visit. However, this cynical view overlooks the fact that the event was held at Tsvangirai’s home and his people could have asked for privacy if they wanted. Instead, they used social media to announce Mnangagwa’s impending visit, which alerted the media.

A more plausible line of examination is who organised the trip. The President of a country does not just wake up and call his Vice President to go and have a chat with the country’s opposition leader. These things are arranged. There would have been intermediaries who worked behind the scenes to facilitate the visit. What is not immediately apparent at present is who initiated the process leading to this event. Inevitably, lack of information generates conspiracy theories, such as are flying around on social media. Nevertheless, the cynicism shows the magnitude of the task that Mnangagwa and his administration have on their hands as they seek to persuade more Zimbabweans to understand their agenda and walk with them.

New politics?

This cynicism is unfortunate but quite understandable given where we have come from. The Mugabe era left too many broken hearts. Mugabe blew hot and cold during his tenure, sometimes appearing magnanimous and at other times being very vindictive. He appeared magnanimous by letting Tsvangirai remain in the government mansion after the end of the Inclusive Government in 2013. But he never gave the former Prime Minister ownership, or a pension, preferring to keep him in limbo and therefore, insecure. Last year, Mugabe even used a rally to mock Tsvangirai by referring to his illness. By treating Tsvangirai humanely and giving him his dues as a former Prime Minister, and therefore doing what Mugabe failed to do, Mnangagwa has behaved fairly, even though others might see it as self-serving.

Mnangagwa himself is conscious of the burden of an unkind reputation that he carries and has often pleaded that he is actually “as soft as wool”. By taking time to actually present himself at Tsvangirai’s home to pay a courtesy call, Mnangagwa seems keen to write a new narrative which replaces the allegedly hard edge with a softer version. Zimbabweans seem happy to see the engagement between the two politicians. Could this be a sign of a new politics of engagement and dialogue across political lines? Could this be heralding a new politics of engagement? The matter goes back again to the question of who initiated and arranged the visit.

Moral high ground

Taking the moral high ground in any war is a good strategy and politics is war. In politics, a ruling party and the opposition are in a continual state of war, with power as the ultimate prize. They have to use different strategies to outwit the other. Mnangagwa is also using this strategy of occupying the moral high ground. A party takes the moral high ground when he assumes a position that has moral persuasion among the people. This generates sympathy and more support. If you suffer a poor reputation, it makes sense to do things that place you on moral high ground. The show of compassion to Tsvangirai and giving him his pension suggest a humane and fair leader, which gives Mnangagwa credit and the moral high ground. He cannot be accused of being unfair and vindictive towards his main political rival. It is not surprising that some may already be persuaded to believe that he is not as bad as they have been made to believe all along.

Reading the game

Every politician must, like a good sportsperson, be able to read the game well. That way, you understand the flow of the game, including the opportunities that present themselves. The trip suggests that Mnangagwa is reading the political game carefully and as far as the traditional opposition is concerned, he has made it his mission to present himself as the bigger man. It is notable that he has reached out to the opposition publicly so soon after the opposition and civil society had a controversial trip to the US. Mugabe would have responded with some vicious anti-West rhetoric, referring to the opposition as puppets of the West. Mnangagwa has taken a different approach and as this trip has shown, he has thrown the ball into the opposition’s court by presenting an invitation to treat.

A few weeks ago, when I wrote on the US trip, I suggested that a better strategy would have been for the opposition and civil society to first engage the new administration and if they were stubborn, to then raise the matter with the international community. Some critics argued that this was not necessary and that even if it was, the onus was upon Mnangagwa and his government to initiate the engagement. Apart from not condemning the opposition and civil society, Mnangagwa has taken the step to initiate engagement with the opposition by visiting Tsvangirai. The gesture is humane but it is also political. It is an invitation to treat to which the opposition must respond. The new administration wants to be seen as responsive and engaging and this is an opportunity to present the reforms issues that require attention.

End of hate politics?

On the subject of new politics, one must also consider how Mnangagwa’s visit fits into the national narrative in which hate speech and violence have characterised relations between the ruling party and the opposition. For years, ZANU PF and MDC supporters have fought bitter battles, particularly towards elections. This violence has been fuelled by politicians who use hate speech and show callous disregard for their rivals. Mugabe was particularly vicious towards Tsvangirai whom he taunted severely. Mnangagwa is keen to demonstrate that he is not Mugabe; that his way of doing things is different from his predecessor’s. He has so far been magnanimous towards the traditional opposition, choosing to deploy more arsenal to former colleagues who fell out of favour during the succession war. His message of peace, non-violence and reconciliation is likely to have more traction after this visit. Supporters should be able to look at Mnangagwa and Tsvangirai together and see that if their political principals can share space peacefully, why should they be fighting and wounding each other?

Charm offensive

One of the major priorities of the new administration is to win the favour of the international community. This is fundamentally different from the Mugabe era where relations had been broken beyond repair. The new administration knows that repairing this relationship comes with certain conditions and this is why it will maintain a softer and more reasonable approach. The trip to see the biggest figure in opposition was also part of the charm offensive that Mnangagwa is making towards the international community. It projects the image of not just a compassionate leader but also a pragmatist who is not constrained by dogmatism.

With the trip, Mnangagwa is essentially communicating the message that he can co-exist with his biggest political rival and even help him in his time of great difficulty. He is also communicating an openness to re-engagement, even with old rivals. It’s important that he went with his VP, Retired General Chiwenga, the quintessential hard-man who only recently led the push against Mugabe and was part of the military establishment that gained a reputation of being anti-Tsvangirai. Perhaps Tsvangirai is less of a threat than he was before, but it may also be a show of indication that the politics is changing.

Later this month, Mnangagwa will be in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum when he will hobnob with the global elite in business and politics. The media will have tough questions for him. Having already initiated this engagement and dialogue with the biggest opposition leader, Mnangagwa is already preparing a concrete narrative to sell to the international community. After the visit, it will be hard for anyone to accuse him of not reaching out to the opposition.

Joint effort

Beyond the immediate concerns, Mnangagwa knows long-term prospects for economic recovery will require a joint effort with the opposition. This will be true even after the elections. In my opinion, the next election is likely to be endorsed more broadly than previous elections. For this to happen, Mnangagwa will have to present a show in the run-up to the election that there is reform and it will be free and fair. Thus, in the near future we are going to see some symbolic changes, including the amendment of some of the draconian pieces of legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). There will be no need for the usual acrimony between the ruling party and the opposition. This will create room for a potential Government of National Unity after the elections. That will be probably be the time when we see the post-Mugabe era in earnest, where the ruling party, opposition and the military may be working together under some patched-up arrangement. Mnangagwa did not completely rule out the idea of a Government of National Unity. He said there was no need for it currently but also added that it was something that could be lobbied for.

Opposition: Facing the hard facts

The trip also gave a glimpse of the big challenge of leadership facing the opposition and thrown the cat among the pigeons within the MDC-T. For many people commenting on the images of the visit, it was Tsvangirai’s frailty that they focused on the most. Indeed, some sympathisers were not amused by the photographs, believing his privacy should have been better protected.

There is also a conspiracy theory that the whole event was arranged by internal actors within the party in order to expose and embarrass Tsvangirai. These conspiracy theories are unhelpful and cause divisions but this is why I asked earlier as to who were the organisers of the event. Such events are arranged at a high level and do not just happen. But, in any event, Tsvangirai’s illness is not a secret. It was his brave choice to reveal to the nation that he had cancer. It has obviously taken a huge toll on his body. His current condition was never going to be kept a secret for long, so accusing people of trying to embarrass Tsvangirai does not solve the problem. The important issue right now, given the situation, is not to conduct a witch-hunt but to work out what to do henceforth, since elections are less than 8 months away.

The party and the MDC Alliance must, like all prudent organisations, do scenario-planning and accept the real possibility that they may need a replacement candidate if Tsvangirai is not fit enough to contest in the elections. The sycophantic element of the party will not want to hear all this, but it is important to be realistic and use reason ahead of emotion. The MDC must learn from ZANU PF how badly things can go is the succession issue is not handled carefully. For years, ZANU PF lived in denial, saying there is no need for succession. When it eventually unravelled, it was ugly and some are presently in exile.

Scenario-planning is a perfectly legitimate exercise that is done by all organisations in order to prepare for the future. It will help the opposition anticipate all possible scenarios and plan for them accordingly, putting in place contingency measures. It is the most pragmatic thing to do. Further, having an ambition to lead should not be frowned upon. The irony is that many of those who publicly denounce ambition are often the busiest behind the scenes, as they plot their way to the top. The longer they deny the existence of a problem, the less time there will be to resolve it and the uglier and messier it will become. Meanwhile, their political rivals will want to intervene and influence what happens in the party and this could cause even more chaos.

Into the sunset

It is very hard for those of us who know him well to see Tsvangirai in his current condition. He is, by nature a lively and convivial character who, before the cancer struck, was always fit, healthy and full of life. Sadly, the hand of fate has been cruel. He will have enjoyed the visit by Mnangagwa. In these parlous days, friends are few and far between. Mnangagwa’s visit is, in some ways, recognition by a peer. In any event, Mnangagwa was returning a favour. When he was sworn into office, Tsvangirai was there in attendance. Now Mnangagwa has returned the favour. That is as it should be.

Now that Tsvangirai has his home and pension from his time as Prime Minister, what remains is attendance to his health, bills of which will also be taken care of by the State. The hope is that his health is restored. That must be his only priority right now because there is so much he can do in future as a respected statesman and veteran trade unionist and fighter for democracy and the rule of law. I could see him touring the continent and indeed the world, telling his story to young and aspiring democrats. Few are in his class across the continent. With his financial future secure, and his health in need of repair, this might be the opportunity for courageous warrior to ride into the sunset. If so, a new era beckons in the opposition, spawning a succession war as the election looms. The hope is that the visit and the pension are not the Trojan Horse that deals a mortal blow to the main opposition party if the succession war spirals out of control, which is a possibility.

If after this, Tsvangirai decides to ride into the sunset, Mnangagwa would have achieved an unlikely double within the space of two months: facilitating in very different ways the retirement of the two great figures who have dominated Zimbabwean politics for two decades – one with a push, the other with the gift of his dues.


Gary Murambiwa
the authorGary Murambiwa