HARARE — In a hotel room packed with distrustful lieutenants, doubting diplomats and cheering fans, Morgan Tsvangirai attempted to begin his road to redemption.
“Here I am, I am not fizzling out,” the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change proclaimed, motioning to his supporters. He had arrived to give his “state of the nation address”, a speech that was less an actual policy statement than it was a forget-me-not message.
His star has dimmed since last July’s elections, and his image has been damaged by the public collapse of his controversial two-year-old marriage. With funders deserting him, the internal rivals that had long been plotting in the shadows have seen a chance to challenge him openly.
Tsvangirai’s handlers have wheeled him out and are trying to help him to win back relevance, after months of brooding and indecision.
The strategy was clear: to urge Zimbabweans to look past Tsvangirai’s personal issues — and to cast him as a blameless victim who is under attack from powerful forces bent on derailing “the people’s project” — and to focus on the economic crisis.
Tsvangirai is desperate to remind Zimbabweans who have grown weary of his personal scandals that he is still a credible leader. His address, loaded though it was with old rhetoric, was important in his fight to regain confidence.
Facing the public for the first time after damaging media reports about his marriage, he insisted that his personal issues mattered less than the crisis facing the economy.
He said: “Personal circumstances cannot overshadow the national crisis and the daily tribulations of ordinary Zimbabweans.”
He is not taking any blame for the damage his image has taken. All the scandal was the work of his enemies, he said.
His enemies were trying to “humiliate me, engaging in protracted press wars against my person”. It was a campaign of “unbridled malice and open provocation”. None of it was his fault, he said.
He believes he is a victim and he cast himself as a brave Mandela-like figure being persecuted by powerful enemies.
“I remain greatly inspired, at a personal level, by Nelson Mandela and his tenacity and resilience to continue with his fight and struggle despite setbacks and frustrations,” Tsvangirai said. “Because of his inspiration, I have since taken a decision that whatever is done by enemies of this great people’s project will not break my spirit.”
His fight for relevance is being frustrated by pressure from within his party for him to quit. What began as rumours of internal strife has now boiled over into a public spat, with a senior official, Elton Mangoma, openly telling Tsvangirai to step down.
The factional tensions were on display when Tsvangirai’s officials were introduced. There were loud cheers for his loyalists, among them popular youth leader Solomon Madzore, but only polite applause for MDC general secretary Tendai Biti, rumoured to be part of the anti-Tsvangirai faction.
But Tsvangirai said the MDC was still “united, alive and well” and that he was leading “a happy family of democrats”. Anyone campaigning against him wanted “to kill the people’s project” and he would ignore their “shrill cries”.
The internal disputes may shake confidence but Tsvangirai is in no real danger of losing power. If anything, his opponents may have handed him a chance to rally support around himself once again.
It is a strategy straight out of the Robert Mugabe survival playbook — the party is under siege from external enemies; supporters must obediently back their leader to protect it.
Unlike his rivals, Tsvangirai retains strong support at grassroots, something his handlers drove home by deliberately packing the audience at his address with raucous supporters.
Just like Mugabe, Tsvangirai has built up fanatical support, which he can easily rely on to fend off attempts to oust him. On Monday, party youths stormed the MDC headquarters to assault Mangoma.
Tsvangirai himself stepped in to calm them down but there is no doubt he would have been pleased with the message the incident sent to his rivals.
Senior allies have also rushed to Tsvangirai’s side. Obert Gutu said Mangoma was a “misguided nincompoop with an inflated ego” and was being used by “racist shadowy forces”.
Another official, Chalton Hwende, declared he was ready to die for Tsvangirai.
But some of his supporters seem less sure. To Tsvangirai’s call for dialogue, a supporter asked whether it would not be better to take on Zanu PF.
“This time, we will be cleverer,” Tsvangirai responded.
Another asked what new plan Tsvangirai had, beyond the usual talk: “We have heard all this before. What we need to hear is a strategy, a way forward.”
Tsvangirai conceded he needed to “go back to the people, to re-energise and restrategise”.
According to party spokesman Douglas Mwonzora, this will involve meetings countrywide. Tsvangirai has no real plan but, as has been the case for years, he is banking on the economic crisis to deliver Zanu PF into his hands.
“It won’t be long before it dawns on them that they need to talk to us,” he said, to murmurs of doubt from one corner of the audience.
While Tsvangirai works to mend his image and snuff out the ambitions of internal rivals, his party continues to lose ground.
Zanu PF swept all three by-elections held last weekend and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) said that Zanu PF had gained ground.
“The results show that Zanu PF has retained the seats that were made vacant by the death of the councillors and, in addition, they have also managed to acquire the Harare municipality ward 12 seat that had been won by MDC-T. Zanu PF has made inroads in places which were formerly MDC-T strongholds,” Zesn said in a report.