Speaking to The Times before his visit to Europe this week, the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe — who is facing growing criticism that he has become an apologist for the regime — said that he now had a “functioning working relationship” with President Mugabe, 85 — the man who in recent years had him jailed, beaten and threatened with death, and whose 29-year rule has led his country to near collapse.
“I can’t stand up and defend his past,” Mr Tsvangirai said in his Washington hotel, minutes after an Oval Office meeting with President Obama. “But I want to say here that the situation in Zimbabwe is no different from Poland, where the Solidarity organisation was in cohabitation with the Communists in the transition.
“Nelson Mandela went for two years with the former apartheid leaders in order to create that transition [in South Africa],” he added. “So we are not in a unique position. Transitions of this nature are important, because you soft-land a crisis in order to create a better basis for democratic development.”
Mr Tsvangirai is on a three-week world tour, during which he hopes to persuade the West to increase aid to his shattered nation.
In recent days, and to a sceptical audience, he has argued that Zimbabwe is now “on an irreversible transition to democracy” — a case he will make when he arrives in London on Saturday.
Under the terms of his powersharing agreement, Mr Mugabe has retained control of the police, military, intelligence service, media and criminal justice system.
Opposition leaders are still being arrested and white-owned farms are still being illegally seized.
Sitting in on the interview was a US-based representative of The Herald, the Mugabe-controlled state newspaper which has belittled Mr Tsvangirai’s trip each day since he left the country a week ago. The reporter insisted on reciting long questions read verbatim from copious longhand notes, which appeared to be an attempt to take up the time allocated for the interview.
Mr Tsvangirai insisted that Mr Mugabe now understood the dire problems facing the people of Zimbabwe, where hyper-inflation has destroyed the economy, Aids is rampant and the country’s infrastructure is in ruins.
“He is not stupid. He’s astute and he’s clear about what he wants to do. We both appreciate the fact that we have a national responsibility to define the destiny of the country. Only through working together are we able to respond to our people’s needs.”
Such a stance from Mr Tsvangirai, who for a decade was Mr Mugabe’s implacable foe, is threatening his credibility and drawing criticism from reformists, who say that he should be speaking out more boldly against Mr Mugabe’s abuses. The Prime Minister, however, appears to believe that the best way to achieve reform is from within. Just as Mr Mugabe realised that “he needed to share power if he was going to make progress, we have shifted the arena of our struggle in order to have full democracy in our country,” he said.
Mr Tsvangirai appeared optimistic and did not talk about the death of his wife in a car crash earlier this year, an accident that he survived.
He insisted that the country’s inflation rate had dropped from 500 billion per cent to 3 per cent — a claim that is not supported by economists.
He left his meeting with Mr Obama with a promise of $73 million in humanitarian aid “and no development aid”, a reflection of Washington’s decision to limit its assistance and keep sanctions in place until Mr Mugabe is out of power.
“I must confess when I came [to Washington] I found the mood to be very sceptical,” Mr Tsvangirai said. “But as time went on, and we explained our case, I think there has been an appreciation that Zimbabwe is in a post-conflict situation.” This article was first published in the Times (UK)