'Don't quote me!' – Mutambara

“Today I am incognito,” he says. Actually, he is the most conspicuous person in the sizeable Sandton hotel lounge and is, in fact, approached by a young woman who congratulates him on his new position.

“I’ve a country to run,” he says. Two bodyguards wait outside – at least he says there are only two.

Ten days after the swearing in of the government of national unity, he says that he has no job description yet, nor does he have an idea of the perks of the job. “I don’t need them.”

He is erratic; alternately angry and entertaining, he ticks me off for “being late” although I was dead on time. He thinks on the hoof, changing his mind as he speaks, saying often, “Don’t quote me; don’t quote me!”

Which aspect, I wonder, should I keep under wraps? The previous day, at a seminar on youth, intellectuals and politics at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), students ridiculed him, warning that he may follow in the footsteps of Robert Mugabe.

When I remind him of this, he says, “That is a good point. Yes, I could become a dictator. No one should trust me or take me at my word. We have systems, we have valid institutions and we depend on those. Until 1980, you would be slaughtered for criticising Mugabe before he was crowned. Don’t ever be dependent on personalities!”

Mutambara is a work in progress.

He wants feedback about his on-stage performance at UJ, which was dramatic, in the mould of the holy roller televangelist. Sweeping movements accompanied his political preaching. I tell him he should borrow Kwame Nkrumah’s nickname of “Showboy”.

“I am just a Zimbabwean; I am very passionate about my views; if I come across very strongly, I am someone who is very determined but a strong democrat. I believe in rational disputation. I love a good debate.”

For a rocket scientist ranked among Africa’s top scientists, his approach to politics is curiously unscientific.

“I’m a very different kind of politician. I don’t suffer fools. You understand that? I might have to do so in politics.

I don’t suffer fools

But I don’t suffer fools. I am an independent thinker; I challenge conventional wisdom.

That is why you find me against Morgan [Tsvangirai] on television. You foolish media people think Morgan is a saint. If Morgan makes mistakes, I don’t cover for him.

We are getting on very well. Now is the time to deliver, time to work, we are working very closely together.”

Since creating the breakaway Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), running against Tsvangirai’s MDC, Mutambara has flip-flopped and swerved.

Once, he was against Mugabe, then he was against Tsvangirai, then he supported Simba Makoni when he could have been joining hands with Tsvangirai against Zanu-PF in the March 2008 election.

This obduracy led to the failure of the MDC to win sole control of Parliament. But now Mutambara has said he is for Tsvangirai – although he is widely perceived to be for Mugabe. He says: “Many people still loved Mugabe in 1988. I hate it when people say I am pro-Mugabe. It is not true. I fought Mugabe! I am for Zimbabwe. It is a very cheap manifestation of intellectual laziness to say that anyone critical of the West is a supporter of Mugabe.”

He stresses the “complementarity” in the government of national unity, implying that both Zanu-PF and the MDC should shoulder equal responsibility for the state of Zimbabwe, but he is unwilling to provide empirical evidence for this.

An ardent anti-imperialist, he quotes Otto von Bismarck, the 19th century imperialist German chancellor and prime minister, who said, “Politics is the art of the possible”. Arthur Mutambara was born on 25 May 1966. His curriculum vitae reveals that he is a high technology expert and leader, a global strategy specialist and an entrepreneur.

He was the author of three engineering books, he is a Rhodes Scholar, with an MSc (computer engineering) and a PhD (robotics and mechatronics) from Oxford University, and a BSc (Hons) (electrical engineering) from the University of Zimbabwe.

He was also a research scientist and professor of robotics and mechatronics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and at NASA. He says his parents (Philemon was a Fort Hare graduate and his mother, Effie, a primary schoolteacher) spawned four PhD graduates.

“Whoever came back from school who was not first in class was scorned.”  

"Che Guevara is the ultimate human being who ever lived."

If you had not kept up the divisions between yourself and Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC would probably have succeeded in ousting Mugabe.

I have no appetite for discussing this now. Everything I have done is consistent. There is a method to the madness.

If you follow my activities from 1989 – on 4 October when I was arrested for the first time and Morgan’s first arrest came on 6 October – you will see that I am part of the foundation of the struggle.

I would say we have worked together for a long time. And make sure you understand that I have been working in the trenches for more than 20 years.

You have said the government of national unity has been a compromise – what would it take for you to opt out?

At this point we are not entertaining any form of defeat. We have spent so much time negotiating and working on this compromise. The agenda is very simple. I think we can achieve it by resolving humanitarian crises in our country, national healing, and economic recovery and transformation.

As a former militant student leader, you spoke at UJ of MIT and Oxford University, not of the conditions faced by Zimbabwean students – why?

I was trying to motivate the students that the sky is the limit. I am not impressed by an activist who fails in an examination.

You go to the streets, you are locked up. I want twinning of academic excellence and social adaptability.

How could the MDC allow Mugabe to have seven extra cabinet members in addition to the 14 agreed on at the swearing-in ceremony?

I go to Parliament where we have 184 MPs – 184 in agreement. In senate, 72 out of 72. I am calling this unprecedented unanimity. There is some clarity on a need for this thing.

As I have said before, it is a compromise document.

It is the only workable arrangement in our country and we know the limitations and flaws and challenges; how do we come up with a mitigation plan?

Your critics are asking how you came into this high position considering the fact that you do not have an electorate.

Why not ask Tsvangirai and Mugabe? Surely they don’t just throw things away.

What is your view of the amnesty Zanu-PF has allegedly requested the MDC to sign?

It will allegedly wipe a clean slate from 1980. It is nonsense. There is no basis for this story. It is fiction created by careless talkers.

Do you think national healing can take place without people confronting their past?

We want restorative justice, we want to break the cycle of impunity. We want accountability. The truth must be known so we can lay a foundation that says never again will Zimbabweans kill each other over political affiliation. Retribution and revenge are not our tactics. We don’t intend revenge, we intend to heal.

Do you intend to remain in Zimbabwe?

I don’t need to leave the country. I have been there, done that. I got a PhD, wrote books and I am a better person because of it. I had exposure and I am not sorry I went away. I can make a better contribution. I am here to stay and to run the country.

Is there any significance in your Che Guevara beret?

Che Guevara and Malcolm X are my heroes. Che Guevara is the ultimate human being who ever lived. He stands for sacrifice, intellectual prowess, dedication to the collective, high morals, high principles, standing up for what is right. And Malcolm – I love Malcolm X!”

What is your relationship with Cuba?

I was talking about people of heroic stature like Guevara. It has nothing to do with Cuba, but what he stood for. We look north, south, east and west for opportunities. North, south, west, China’s best… Not for us; we look everywhere for opportunities. We don’t look at the usual suspects – no, we want to diversify.

Are you a social democrat?

I am for social democratic arrangement underpinned by economic values that leverage the market – enlightened self-interest within the human rights democratic dispensation. We must try to resolve these challenges in a holistic manner, appreciating the interconnectedness of global challenges. We are revolutionaries who understand that Africa cannot survive as a commodity-based economy. We, the Zimbabweans, are not content to survive on economic support. We want to be masters of our own destiny.

Are you an Africanist?

I am a social democrat, a Zimbabwean, an Africanist, a global citizen, that is why I go to Davos.

Are you angry that the Southern African Development Community was unable to steer Zimbabwe out of crisis?

My view about African institutions is that we must support them. If we don’t like their work, we reform them and defend them and this does not mean that they don’t reform. Whatever reservations we have, we must work on improving them.

At the UJ seminar, you said: “I have fought Mugabe for 25 years, as a student leader, and now I am fighting him at close range!” How do you intend to do this? I said it publicly so I cannot take it back. I don’t make up stuff about people. What else do you want to know?

Where did you buy your suit?

In the States. What does it matter?