Morgan Tsvangirai’s messy love life is a gift to his enemies
Zimbabwe’s prime minister may yet succeed Robert Mugabe but his poor
judgment about his private life gives cause for concern
Zimbabwe’s prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, believes that intelligence
agents loyal to president Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF party orchestrated a plot
to humiliate and embarrass him ahead of his wedding, which was to have taken
place last Saturday. What Tsvangirai does not say is that his messy love
life and poor judgment have made it all too easy for such plots to succeed.
Before the wedding, Zimbabwe was gripped by headline after headline
featuring all the prime minister’s women. There is his fiance, Elizabeth
Macheka. There is a South African woman who claimed he proposed to her, and
gave a graphically detailed account of their love life, complete with
pictures of Tsvangirai smiling on a luxury cruise ship and on a beach in the
Seychelles. And there is his jilted lover, Locardia Karimatsenga, whose
legal action to have the wedding stopped precipitated this damaging crisis.
Karimatsenga approached a magistrate to have Tsvangirai’s marriage licence
annulled and the wedding interdicted. She argued that he could not marry
another woman in a monogamous process as that would amount to bigamy. The
journalists who have filed on this story did not consult legal experts, and
have, subsequently failed to understand the importance of customary law in
Zimbabwe’s legal system recognises customary law and not “tribal law”, as it
is patronisingly called in many international reports. Customary law is the
complex system of law that governed indigenous societies in Zimbabwe prior
to colonial conquest in 1890. And, like every republic, Zimbabwe also has a
legal system derived from its constitution, legislation, common law and
legal precedent. Zimbabwean law thus has multiple sources. Customary law on
the family has detailed rules about how marriages are established and
dissolved. At the same time, general law also applies to marriages,
guardianship of children and inheritance. The challenge for the system has
been to strike a balance between, on the one hand, the rights that derive
from tradition and, on the other, progressive norms such as equality for
women and protecting the rights of girls.
The system has not always succeeded, and has led to seemingly contradictory
outcomes: Zimbabwean law recognises polygamy but criminalises bigamy. A man
may have any number of wives as long as he stays within the customary law
framework. If he chooses to marry in a polygamous marriage, he cannot
subsequently marry another woman in a monogamous marriage, as that marriage
would mean the automatic divorce of the polygamous wife. To get around the
bigamy laws, he would first have to divorce his customary law wife or wives
before he commits to a form of marriage that allows him to marry only one
This was the argument that Karimatsenga made in her attempt to stop
Tsvangirai’s wedding. The magistrate agreed with her. He ruled that
Tsvangirai had indeed married her, but he had failed to go through the
formal steps under customary law that would have dissolved the marriage. The
magistrate ruled further he could not issue the couple a marriage licence
for a monogamous wedding until Tsvangirai had gone through the customary
rites of divorce in their proper form. If Tsvangirai nonetheless went ahead
and married, he would be arrested for bigamy.
The international press has reported that he married “in defiance” of the
court order. He actually respected it. The couple were careful not to
“marry”, and instead celebrated their already existing customary law union
and affirmed their commitment to each other..
But how much does all this matter? For the most part, Zimbabweans don’t
particularly care about the private lives of politicians. President Mugabe
and his wife Grace began their relationship with an affair when both were
married to other partners. Cabinet minsters routinely jump in and out of
multiple beds, and Zimbabwe gives a collective shrug.
This debacle matters for different reasons. It raises, once again, questions
about the prime minister’s judgment and fitness for office. Even his allies
are lining up to speak out. The Independent, a leading business weekly,
asked the question: is he fit to govern, while veteran journalist Geoff
Nyarota encouraged Tsvangirai to have regard for the dignity of his office.
Certainly, his multiple, and, apparently, simultaneous, sexual relationships
with partners who appear to have been subject to no vetting not only
demonstrates his extremely poor judgment, they also raise security concerns.
He has made it woefully easy for his enemies to portray him as a sex-crazed
maniac: the acerbic Jonathan Moyo famously wrote that Tsvangirai approaches
every issue with a shut mind and every woman with an open zip.
Tsvangirai’s poor judgment is particularly puzzling given that he has been
the subject of intelligence plots before: he barely escaped from an
orchestrated treason trial. The invisible hand of the intelligence agency
is, indeed, all over this debacle. The events had a smooth efficiency that
suggests careful planning. It cannot be said often enough that any plot
against him only worked because Tsvangirai has made himself vulnerable to
Will this hurt him? There is the very real possibility that Tsvangirai will
not only survive this, but may even gain a sympathy bump in his popularity.
The intelligence agents who orchestrated this debacle overreached
themselves. Tsvangirai has certainly been exposed as a self-indulgent and
careless man. But his enemies have demonstrated a single-minded ruthlessness
that shows why Zimbabwe desperately needs a new constitution and a change of
government. The apparent use of state resources and machinery to humiliate
the president’s main rival demonstrates clearly why Zanu PF can no longer be
an option for Zimbabwe.
This is Zimbabwe’s tragedy: the mantle of leadership has rested too long on
the shoulders of the man who currently leads Zimbabwe, and it will sit
uneasily on the man who wants to unseat him. But voters are likely to
conclude that Tsvangirai is the lesser of two evils. Flawed as he is, he may
just make it.
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