Unbowed by years of violence, Mugabe challenger presses on

Presidential rival one of few able to stand up to Zimbabwe leader

March 03, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Less than a week before Zimbabwe's presidential election, the campaign of opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai would appear to be in shambles. He has been charged with high treason - a crime punishable by death - for an alleged plot to assassinate President Robert G. Mugabe. His supporters have been beaten up by mobs. Police officers have shot at his motorcade.

But first as a labor leader and now as a political candidate, Tsvangirai (CHAN-ger-i) is one of the few Zimbabweans who has been able to stand up to Mugabe's regime. He has criticized corruption, brought the country to a standstill with national strikes and nettled Mugabe with his growing popularity.

Tsvangirai has paid dearly for his exploits. He has been detained or jailed by the government at least a half-dozen times, once spending six weeks in prison on suspicion that he was a South African spy. He has survived three assassination attempts, including one in 1997 when assailants attacked him in his 10th-floor office and tried to throw him out the window.

Tsvangirai wants to be Zimbabwe's next president. In the 22 years since the country gained full independence, only Mugabe has held the office.

Tsvangirai poses the greatest threat to him. Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change, won nearly half the elected seats in parliamentary elections in 2000, ushering in an era of multiparty democracy. A recent poll by the Financial Gazette of Harare found people surveyed favor Tsvangirai to Mugabe 52.9 percent to 47.1 percent. A second poll also put Tsvangirai ahead, although most of the respondents chose not to answer, saying their vote was their secret. As Tsvangirai's chances for victory have increased, so has the incidence of government-sponsored violence and intimidation against his supporters.

Mugabe ridicules Tsvangirai as a sellout to white imperialists, a "teaboy" to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a terrorist.

The government's efforts to taunt the opposition were at work again last week, the MDC said, when police charged Tsvangirai and two party members with treason in an alleged plot to kill Mugabe.

The charges are based on a secretly recorded videotape, aired on Australian TV, allegedly showing Tsvangirai and members of a Canadian political consulting firm discussing plans to assassinate Mugabe.

Tsvangirai has denied any wrongdoing, saying the videotape had been doctored to incriminate him.

"The MDC leadership is being persecuted left, right and center," Tvsangirai said last week, pledging that supporters would not be scared away "even if it means we have to limp to the ballot box."

Political supporters as well as the United States and Great Britain criticized the treason charges as an attempt by the government to intimidate the MDC and interfere in the election process.

"If [Tsvangirai] is jailed, it would only help the message of the MDC. It would increase his popularity and standing at the polls by 10 or 15 percent," said Eliphas Mukonoweshuro, professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.

A free and fair election seems nearly an impossibility because of the government's campaign of intimidation. Opposition party rallies are disrupted by police; the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum said 25 people, most of them MDC supporters, have died this year in political violence.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner told a congressional panel last week that "the campaign of repression" by Zimbabwe's government has made an "untainted election" impossible.

"Nonetheless, it is possible that the brave people of Zimbabwe will vote with such conviction and in such numbers that the election will produce a meaningful result," he said.

Judging by his appearance, Tsvangirai does not seem to be a person who could stir the emotions of the masses. Thickset with a pudgy round face, he looks more like a mild-mannered clerk than a would-be president.

The son of a bricklayer, he is the eldest of nine children and was born in Gutu in eastern Zimbabwe. He left school to support his family, working at a clothing factory before finding a job at a nickel mine, where he became actively involved in the mining union. He spent 10 years in mining, steadily rising through the ranks to general foreman before becoming head of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in 1988.

Tsvangirai gained national prominence in 1997 when he organized nationwide strikes - or "stay-aways" - to protest Mugabe's plans for tax increases. Thousands of workers participated, shutting down cities and towns. The taxes were eventually rescinded.

That was when Tsvangirai learned the danger of defying the government. Soon after the strikes, he was beaten up in his union office. His attackers were never charged.

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