Zimbabwe’s prime minister may yet succeed Robert Mugabe but his poor judgment about his private life gives cause for concern.
By Petina Gappah
Prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, believes that intelligence agents loyal to 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. 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 wife.
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 such plots.
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.
Petina Gappah is an award winning Zimbabwean author and lawyer. This article was initially published by the UK Guardian newspaper.