Zimbabwe, March 1980: It is clear that Robert Mugabe is going to win the first ever truly democratic elections in what was then Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. Ian Smith gathers his generals, party leaders and the head of the Rhodesian Secret Police, the CIO, Ken Flower, at his sprawling double-story home in Belgravia.
He demands that they "do something" about the "terrorist" who is about to win the reins of power. He wants Peter Walls, especially, the Army Commander, to lead a military coup and prevent Mugabe from taking over power.
Walls tells those gathered that he has written to Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, asking her to confirm her assurance to him that Mugabe would not be allowed to take power. In that letter, Walls says that if he does not hear from Thatcher, he will have no option but to "take whatever steps we deem necessary" to ensure that Mugabe does not run assume office.
Smith is hopeful. But this soon turns to despair as the results are announced and he sees no movement from the army or from Peter Walls. He goes to the barracks of the Rhodesia Light Infantry Division, where the soldiers tell him that they are just waiting for orders. They are scathing in their condemnation of their Commander, Peter Walls, whom they say has no courage at all. They claim they do not want to ever see him and if they do, they will tear him to pieces. They ask Smith to do something, but he tells them that he prefers that the effort be led by their commanders and officers.
Soon after that, Smith gets a phone call from Mugabe. He goes and sees him at Mugabe's private residence on Quorn Avenue in Mt Pleasent. Smith said when he walked out of that meeting with Mugabe, he was pleasently surprised and hopeful about the future of the country because to him (during their meeting, in which they sat on the same three-seater Sette and Mugabe reached over THREE TIMES to pat Smith reassuringly), "Mugabe behaved like a balanced, civilised Westerner". Smith says in his book that he thought to himself, "Maybe I have been wrong about him."
Mugabe and Smith had fought a bitter war, during which thousands of people died. Mugabe himself had broadcast from his base in Mozambique that when he took over the country, he would "chop off" Ian Smith's head. He had behaved atrociously during the Lancaster House talks that ended that war and made the March 1980 elections possible. In fact, he had walked out because the deal was not to his liking, he wanted complete capitulation from Smith and did not want to have the 20 seats reserved for Whites for ten years after independence as the agreement was proposing.
It was only after Samora Machel, the late president of Mozambique, sent a personal emmissary to Mugabe at Heathrow airport, as the ZANU PF leader waited for a flight to America, that Mugabe gave in and went back to the talks. Machel had told Mugabe in that message that this was as good as it gets and if he turned his back on that deal, then Mozambique would no longer be available to him as a base from which to continue the war.
I tell this story of the founding of modern-day Zimbabwe to demonstrate that Mugabe, once he realised there were no options left, played the diplomat magnificently.
He was to be a humstrung Prime Minister of a newly-independent Zimbabwe, with no power-base at all in the government he was about to take over. The offices he was moving into were still staffed by Rhodesian civil servants who had been serving Smith for 15 years.
Mugabe embarked on a charm offensive. He called in Peter Walls, Smith's Army Commander, and asked him to stay on. He called in David Smith, Dennis Norman, Chris Andersen and the head of Smith's Secret Police, the CIO. He offered them all jobs or asked them to stay on in their positions.
At the same time, Mugabe intially made a point of calling in Ian Smith every week to ask him "for advice" and to "consult" this bitter enemy of his. Smith took it all in and at face value and soon abandoned all thought of ousting Mugabe using his friends in the army, although he continued to get intelligence reports from the eavesdropping operation he had put in place when he was Prime Minister of Rhodesia. Alsmot all of them came from the Telephone company, which was taping the conversations of Mugabe and his ministers and party members in the first year of Mugabe's rule.
By doing what he did, Mugabe effectively isolated Ian Smith and some of his hardline supporters in the Rhodesian Front Party, eating away at his power base. It was to be about 6 years before Mugabe achieved complete mastery over the government and the country. By then, he had discarded Walls, Flower and the other people from Smith's administration that he had taken on board.
Morgan Tsvangirai appears to now have learnt this lesson. As he said in South Africa on Thursday: "I believe Mr Mugabe is part of the problem, but I also believe that he is part of the solution. I don't have a willing partner in Mr Mugabe, but we have to deal with him."
Perhaps Tsvangirai now realises that he is dealing with an institutionalised system that revolves around Mugabe. For someone who is coming from outside of this institution, it is only realistic to accept that Mugabe will have to be accomodated and then eased out of office. A complete overthrow is impossible for various reasons, including the fact that the people of Zimbabwe do not have what it takes to confront Mugabe head-on and put in Tsvangirai whether the Zimbabwean dictator likes it or not.
Tsvangirai, we hope, now realises that what Mugabe did in 1980, he will have to do as well now. He will have to first accept the Zimbabwean Prime Ministerial post and then work his way around Mugabe from within the corridors of power. Tsvangirai, perhaps smarter than his supporters, now realises that he stands a better chance of assuming complete power from within government than from outside of it.
He will have to win over the people around Mugabe, to reassure the army, the police and even some of Mugabe's own supporters within government and ZANU PF. This should not be too difficult. It may well be that when the time comes for Mugabe to ask his police to arrest Tsvangirai, as he is planning, he will find he has no one willing to do this. It all depends on how Tsvangirai handles these people once he is sitting in the Prime Minister's office.
As one of Mugabe's own ministers said to me last week, "Once the people in the army and police and ZANU PF see that there is nothing to fear from Tsvangirai, that he has the power to actually change their fortunes and is willing to do so, then they will have no compunction about dumping Mugabe."
Tsvangirai now accepts this. And he is to be commended for it. His comments in South Africa betray the fact that he may now realise that getting into government may be the best way for him to shift Mugabe from office.
The MDC-T leader's comments are insightful and a complete rejection of the clueless idiocy coming from some of his own supporters simply urging him to walk away and dump this whole deal, without offering an alternative strategy for dealing with this prickly pear, except to say Mugabe will die at some point!
To me, this may mark the maturing of Morgan Tsvangirai as a politician, but we will have to wait and see. As the common saying goes, diplomacy is the art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the journey. This is what Tsvangirai needs to do in his dealings with Mugabe.
It is brilliant that he has now rejected the idiotic calls from some of his own supporters to do the opposite and tell Mugabe to go to hell in such a way that he is will not look forward to the journey. Tsvangirai tried that, and got a hardening of attitudes from the army and police, who saw that if he gained power, they are all dead. Of course they then rallied around Mugabe in order to protect themselves. They put immense pressure on Mugabe to refuse to give in or give up. And today, Tsvangirai is still out of power despite winning the March 2008 elections.
The new approach he has taken is brilliant only if it is carried through to its logical conclusion. Tsvangirai needs to get to a point where Mugabe turns around and thinks to himself, like Ian Smith did, "Maybe I have been wrong about Morgan." This requires guile and mastery of diplomacy. But should it happen, it will assure Morgan of the presidency and power. The question is: does the PM have what it takes?
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