Good life knocks MDC off pedestal

HARARE - The guests arrived in Bentleys, Benzes and BMWs. At a plush, riverside wedding in an upscale suburb, the wine and spirits flowed and tables groaned with the ample buffet.

Politicians, celebrities, diplomats and business leaders mingled to the strains of Oliver Mtukudzi serenading the happy couple with his famous love song Svovi Yangu.

This was not the wedding of some stalwart of the dominant party that has ruled this mineral-rich nation for decades. Instead, the 60-year-old groom was a one-time labour organiser, Morgan Tsvangirai, the long-standing opposition leader and now prime minister in a once uneasy but increasingly comfortable unity government with President Robert Mugabe.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Misheck Shoko, a member of Parliament for Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). “It must have cost a fortune. We cannot help but wonder: who paid the bill?”

As Zimbabwe prepares to choose a new president this year in long-awaited elections, voters are increasingly questioning the erstwhile opposition, the only serious challenger to the tight grip Mugabe and his party, Zanu PF, have held on this nation for decades.

Tsvangirai’s underdog movement has long been the vessel of millions of Zimbabweans’ hopes for a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous future in what was once one of Africa’s most stable and wealthy nations.

But four years of governing alongside Mugabe — and in some ways, analysts say, being co-opted by him and his allies — has taken a toll on its reputation.

The disenchantment was evident in a survey last year conducted for Freedom House, a watchdog group based in the United States, which found support for Tsvangirai’s party had fallen to 20 percent from 38 percent two years earlier among voters who declared a preference.

By contrast, support for the ex-majority party — a movement, which clung to power by beating, torturing and intimidating thousands in the last election in 2008 — grew to 31 percent last year from 17 percent in 2010, the survey found, though some analysts noted that an unusually high number of people declined to respond, probably out of fear.

Tsvangirai rocketed to fame as the courageous leader of a party that dared to challenge the rule of Mugabe, who has led this country since independence in 1980.

Photographs of him beaten and bleeding from the head in 2007 galvanised global opinion against Mugabe’s brutal reign.

But these days, Tsvangirai’s lifestyle has been the talk of a nation where millions live on $2 a day. He has taken to travelling abroad with a sizable entourage, officials and analysts say, honeymooning in London and spending holidays in Monaco.

He recently moved into a government residence that cost about $3 million to build.

His party entered the power-sharing government in 2009, after disastrous elections in which Tsvangirai won the most votes but withdrew from a runoff because of the violence meted out against his followers.

Hundreds of people were killed in the crackdown. In a deal hammered out with Zimbabwe’s neighbours, Tsvangiriai became prime minister, and the two parties agreed to share power.

In practice, Tsvangirai’s party has had almost no authority to change the fundamental structure of Zimbabwe. The army and police forces remained under Mugabe’s control.

The MDC holds ministries controlling the economy and social services, both of which have improved, but it has struggled to transform the architecture of Mugabe’s security state.

Meanwhile, officials in Tsvangirai’s party, many of whom suffered poverty while fighting to remake Zimbabwe, began enjoying the trappings of power. Government ministers, MPs and other officials were awarded fancy cars, and travel allowances. Tsvangirai traded his trade-unionist leather jacket for tailored suits.

His personal life has been a source of embarrassment as well. His wife Susan died in a car accident in 2009, and his romantic life since has been the subject of extensive news coverage, much to his party’s chagrin.

When he was planning to marry Elizabeth Macheka, another woman challenged, claiming that she had been married to the MDC leader in 2011.

The matter ended up in court, with a magistrate ruling that Tsvangirai was in fact already married under customary law. He was forced to cancel plans for a legal wedding and instead called the ceremony last September a celebration.

Another woman also filed court papers, claiming that she and Tsvangirai had been engaged.

Tsvangirai did not respond to repeated interview requests, but he apologised publicly to supporters for his messy search for a new wife, saying: “I had no intention to hurt anyone. It was a genuine search.”

Other problems have erupted. In Chitungwiza, an MDC stronghold, a corruption scandal has engulfed the City Council. Elected officials stand accused of selling access to hundreds of pieces of city-controlled land for about $4 000 per plot and pocketing most of the money.

Council members from Tsvangirai’s party, with the help of their former adversaries, parcelled off soccer fields, playgrounds, wetlands and areas set aside for schools and churches.

Land in Chitungwiza is not privately owned; individuals and businesses lease it from the government. But there is a long waiting list, and bribes to city councillors helped people jump the line.

For many, the painful irony is that thousands were pushed out of Chitungwiza by Mugabe’s government in a 2005 demolition campaign to eviscerate opposition strongholds.

Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed, and today housing is scarce and expensive.

City employees are supposed to receive land for houses, but many are waiting — and officials from Tsvangirai’s party are now accused of profiting from the misfortune.

Never Tarugarira, a janitor and handyperson at a community center, has been on a waiting list since 2005, but his number has never come up.

So he rents two tiny, fetid rooms for $100 a month, eating up much of his paycheck — that is, when he gets one. He has not been paid for the past five months because of the city’s fiscal woes.

“Some nights we go to sleep without eating,” he said.

Alice Chihambakwe, another Chitungwiza resident waiting years for a plot, says her husband goes to work every day at the city’s sewer plant, but has not been paid in months.

Two of her children had to postpone crucial high school exams because the family could not pay the fees, about $30 per child.

“Our lives are on hold,” Chihambakwe said, weeping softly.

The councillors proved easy marks for corrupt bureaucrats from Mugabe’s party, said Amos Matanhike, a former town clerk in Chitungwiza.

“The problem is that most of the MDC councillors are very young,” Matanhike said. “They did not have houses, they owned no property. So these youngsters took that opportunity, and they got onto the gravy train.”

Once it got wind of the scandal, Tsvangirai’s party tried to take action, firing the councillors involved. But the minister for local government, a Zanu PF appointee, vetoed the dismissals, so the councillors remain.

Critics say the former opposition party has been naïve, falling into a trap set by Mugabe to co-opt and compromise them.

“Old Bob must be chuckling and enjoying himself right now,” said Munyaradzi Gwisai, a prominent activist. “He has them right where he wants them.”

Nelson Chamisa, a top MDC, says Tsvangirai remains the best hope for change in Zimbabwe.

“He is the next big thing in Zimbabwe,” Chamisa said. “He is the only game in town.”

He called Tsvangirai’s ceremony “a basic wedding” and that he deserved sympathy after the tragic death of his previous wife.

“At times people are very harsh and unkind to a very noble man,” Chamisa said.

Asked who paid for the wedding, Chamisa said: “There are many people who wish him well.” — New York Times

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