Zimbabwe Opposition Leader on Activism, Beatings
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up: small steps toward peace. A veteran of the conflict in Northern Ireland on how to move toward peace in Iraq.
Also, we continue our discussion on women and various forms of empowerment. Today, a woman who embraces the B-word. And later, legalizing the word's oldest profession, could that provide a safer and healthier workplace for South Africa's sex workers?
First, though, to a country that was once the breadbasket of Africa. Zimbabwe is, today, another world. Millions in that country are hungry. They lack medicine, there's almost no gasoline, and the country's inflation rate is the highest in the world, well over 6,000 percent. And after holding on to power for nearly three decades with increasingly brutal tactics, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has now became a pariah in the in the eyes of the international community.
Earlier this week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that he would not attend a summit of African and European leaders if Mugabe is in attendance. It's not surprising, then, that thousands are fleeing Zimbabwe every day, many of them from Mugabe's opposition.
Morgan Tsvangirai is the best known of Mugabe's opponents. He's in the U.S. to drum up support for his party, the Movement for Democratic Change - or MDC - as it works toward fair presidential and parliamentary elections next March.
Morgan Tsvangirai joins us from Houston. Welcome.
Mr. MORGAN TSVANGIRAI (Opposition Leader, Movement for Democratic Change): Thank you very much, Michel. I'm very grateful to be on your show.
MARTIN: How is your health? I think many people are aware of what happened to you last March. So, how are you doing?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: Well, quite honestly, I'm - I have fully recovered from the traumatic experience of March. Suffice to say, that there are some of my colleagues who are still recovering and recuperating from the events that took place.
MARTIN: And you were among those who were attacked by security forces at a police station. Why were you attacked?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: We had organized a prayer meeting under Save Zimbabwe with number of church leaders. And the police had cordoned off - unbeknown to us, had cordoned off this venue, attacking people who were coming to the meeting, and eventually rounded up all our executive leaders and brought them to this police station. And when I found out this had happened, I went to this police station to find out why they were arrested. And, of course, unbeknown to me, I was also now becoming a target, and became subject to these unprecedented and indiscriminate beatings that took place inside that police station.
MARTIN: Is this the first time that you had been beaten up by security forces?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: Physically, yes. But you know that over the years, I've been subject to attacks, you know, by some Zanu-PF youths and zealots. I remember at one time when I was campaigning in Bindura, my convoy was attacked. When I was campaigning in one the areas in Sanyati, my convoy was, again, attacked. So, physically, as far as state violence against me, this was the first brutal and almost fatal attack.
MARTIN: But there has been a, I think, a victory for the - your party this week. It was announced that prosecutors have withdrawn terror charges against 22 members of your party - activists with your party that prosecutors have alleged that they had undergone terrorism training in South Africa and had charged them with attempted murder. Now they're saying that these charges were dropped. You've also been subjected to charges of treason at sort of various points, and do you take heart in this victory, the fact that these charges were dropped against these activists?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: I really do think that such a victory is welcome. My people are out of the control of the state. But, you know, those were trumped up charges in the first place, and, therefore that we are not deserving those kind of prosecutions. The idea is to intimidate the opposition. Now, you ask what is our reaction? Of course, we may never know the cause of this dictatorship, but, certainly, families have gone through this very traumatic experience of their husbands or the activists being taken away and being brutalized just for acts that they have not - never committed.
MARTIN: Many of our listeners have never traveled to Africa. They certainly have not been to Zimbabwe. What are the conditions there now? When you walk into a food store, what do you see? And how is the average family coping?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: The situation has become catastrophic. Over the last two or three months, it has even deteriorated to situations where the basic family cannot have the basics, like bread, like meat, like milk, like sugar, like salt. In our situation, since the so-called price cuts or price blitz in which all prices were cut by half or by 50 percent, the supermarket shelves have just run empty. So, the poor are now in a worse situation, because they cannot access these goods and services.
MARTIN: Well, how do people eat every day? Is there international aid coming in? Or how are people being able just to survive?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: Well, in the rural areas, there's very serious food shortages in terms of basic foods, and they depend more largely on international food aid organizations. And I think there are about four to five million Zimbabweans who are depending on that (unintelligible).
In the urban areas, it's more difficult, because there's no subsistent facility available to them. They don't have aid in the urban area, so they have to scrounge to get their family to at least a meal a day.
MARTIN: Is there a black market? I understand that you were saying that government decreed that prices had to be cut by 50 percent. And the consequence was, you were saying, that shortages became even worse because the businesses couldn't replace their stocks. I mean, it was costing them more to sell than it was to supply. Yeah.
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: Yeah, the result has been a huge, black market - very active. And it is the poor who will suffer, because they cannot afford the black market prices. And that's the tragedy of this war - economic decay and decline that is - that we've experienced.
MARTIN: Well, with conditions so bad, how does Mugabe hold on to power?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: Mugabe has held on to power through a system of centralized and a militarized control of the security institutions. You remember that the farm invasions - a lot of the farms that were taken away from the white farms were given to his elites in terms of…
MARTIN: And that began in, what? Around the year 2000, when the government basically seized most of the country's white-owned farms?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: Around 2000. So, they have been beneficiary of Mugabe's patronage system, and they have kept him in power because of that. And we know that no one benefits from this exercise other than his elites.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Morgan Tsvangirai. He is the head of the leading opposition party in Zimbabwe - the Movement for Democratic Change. And he's on a tour of North America.
South Africa is your neighbor. Do you think that President Thabo Mbeki should be doing more to pressure President Mugabe on issues like human rights, on, you know, freedom of the press, economic reform and so forth?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: President Thabo Mbeki is currently involved in the Southern Africa Development Community initiative to mediate between the ruling party and the opposition, to craft out conditions for free and fair elections. So, he's doing his bit under the mandate of the regional leaders. So, I think that effort is the least he can do. Otherwise, denouncing Mugabe is not going to be helpful. He has already experienced this resistance from Mugabe just ignoring him, and that kind thing. So, what he is doing at the moment, I think, hopefully, is the best intervention that can be available.
MARTIN: What about the Unites States? Is there something that you would like to see the U.S. government do that it is not already doing?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: The people of Zimbabwe acknowledge the outspoken position that President Bush has taken. But there's also the issue that we expect the United States and other leaders in the world to monitor and to insist on the elections that are going to be forthcoming to be free and fair, so that Zimbabweans can express themselves.
MARTIN: And what exactly does that mean? You wish the U.S. to send, what? More observers?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: One of the things is that the United States could coordinate with some African aboriginal leaders to ensure that these conditions are in place. Standards of elections should be applied also to Zimbabwe, and this has been the missing link in ensuring that the people of Zimbabwe's voice is heard.
MARTIN: You've been in the opposition for years, and as you've told us, you've been harassed. You've been subjected to charges that, you know, of treason that you considered to be trumped-up, which have been repeatedly dismissed over time. And you've been beaten, as we've discussed, and you've seen members of your party similarly harassed, and now many people are fleeing the country. How do you keep it up?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: Well, I will tell you, Michel, that I'm inspired by the resilience of Zimbabweans. And every time I wake up, I ask myself if I'm the representative of these people and of the struggling masses of Zimbabwe and they give me support, why should I abandon them?
And also, the effect that if I am the beacon of hope to this tyrannical situation, then certainly I think that we need to keep that fire burning. It has been long and hard. It has been risky, almost to the point of fatality, but the people of Zimbabwe have sacrificed more. There were 500 people killed as activists. Thousands have been raped and brutalized and their homes burned down. So the struggle has been very costly, but I think that there's nothing cheaper than fighting for your freedom.
MARTIN: If President Mugabe succeeds in winning another term in March, what will you do?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: I do not foresee a situation in which this regime - in a free and fair election - can win, based on the results over the last three elections, and even given the conditions that currently exist.
Mugabe may be busy trying to distribute tractors, but what the people of Zimbabwe need, really, is food on their table. They need bread today. And he may be trying to patronize the whole nation by distributing all this and finding shadow enemies like Bush and Blair, but the real enemies are starvation and disease.
So I do not see how, in a free and fair election, he can win the confidence of Zimbabwe, if at all by the recent poll assessments, 65 to 70 percent of Zimbabweans wants change.
MARTIN: And finally, sir, what do you say to those in the international community who say, you know, I'm sorry for the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe, but this situation is just a mess and it's not going to change until, you know, Mugabe dies? What do you say?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: We can't wait until Mugabe dies, because we don't know when he is going to die. In the meantime, we need to rescue the situation and take the international responsibility to assist the Zimbabweans to free themselves. I think it is a sad assessment and quite cynical for people to say let's wait until Mugabe dies in order to resolve the matter.
I think the matter that is needed urgent - this needs urgent attention by the international community. And, therefore, I think we cannot postpone the suffering of the people, the masses of Zimbabwe a day longer than is necessary.
MARTIN: Are you hopeful?
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: I'm very optimistic for the future of the country. I'm hopeful. That's what keeps me going, and that's what keeps the movement for Democratic Change engaged in this struggle, because we believe in our cause. We believe in the rights of Zimbabweans to fight for their freedom, and that, ultimately, the truth will prevail over evil.
MARTIN: Morgan Tsvangirai is a leader of the MDC Party in Zimbabwe - The Movement for Democratic Change. It's the leading opposition party. He joined us from his hotel in Houston, his first stop on a tour of North America.
Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. TSVANGIRAI: Thank you, Michel. Thank you very much.