The foyer of the Renaissance Hotel in central Brussels is heaving with Zimbabweans and it has been like this all day.
There are delegates, diplomats, High Commission functionaries, wives, secretaries and, at the centre of it all, members of Morgan Tsvangirai’s globe-trotting entourage fresh in from Copenhagen.
It is now mid-afternoon and I have been sitting in the foyer waiting to meet the Zimbabwean prime minister since 10am. So the hand-slapping, gales of laughter and general African exuberance — which on a good day I thoroughly enjoy — are beginning to pall.
The problem is that Mr Tsvangirai’s press attaché has had to fly from Copenhagen to Brussels via Frankfurt for some reason and not only have I failed to establish the prime minister’s whereabouts but protocol insists that even if I do, I cannot approach him until the wayward attaché arrives.
Ominously, the secretary general of Tsvangirai’s party, Tendai Biti, proffers an African solution to my Western haste: “Some time today or tomorrow your interview will happen. Be patient.” Wait a minute, mister, I’ve come here from London with a Telegraph team and we had an appointment.
Then a group of police outriders, lights flashing, sirens blaring, lead several limousines to the front of the Renaissance and out of one steps the compact figure of Mr Tsvangirai. I abandon protocol and seize the moment. Fortunately, he recognises me, shakes my hand and greets me warmly. When I explain the problem he deals with it in the pragmatic manner that has served him so well over the past few turbulent years. “Let’s do it. Set up your cameras and call me in my room in five minutes…”
And so we find ourselves in a quiet corner of a Belgian hotel talking about Barack Obama, Robert Mugabe and how Mr Tsvangirai’s pillaged, abused, almost ruined, country is beginning to pick itself up off the floor after a decade of economic, social and political destruction visited on it by its first post-colonial leader and his inner circle of violent kleptocrats.
He is in the last week of a tour that has taken him to the White House to meet Obama and through Europe’s capitals attempting to convince the likes of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister, and, next week, Gordon Brown, to offer financial help to his bankrupt country.
His four-month-old coalition government has yet to meet the conditions laid down by foreign governments to resume aid. Human rights are being violated, farm invasions are still taking place, and the security services and media are still firmly in the grip of Mr Mugabe’s Zanu PF party, so it is a hard sell.
And the power-sharing deal, brokered by the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC), has been constantly flouted by Mr Mugabe and his ministers, who appear to regard Tsvangirai with the overt contempt they once reserved for their former colonial masters the British.
Mr Tsvangirai brushes these obstacles aside with a smile and a wave. He insists that now is precisely the time for the international community to show its support for the shaky coalition.
“We need support if we are to avoid sliding back to where we were. I am telling these leaders that I need to re-establish Zimbabwe’s relations with the outside world – we must be part of the community of nations again and not a pariah state.
“Look at what we have achieved in the four months of this coalition government. We have brought inflation down from 500 billion per cent to three per cent, we have started opening schools that had been closed for more than a year, and we have reopened hospitals.”
It should be mentioned that the staggering drop in inflation is due to he abandonment of the Zimbabwe dollar, which has been replaced by the US dollar and the South African rand. Today the only place you’ll find the famously inflated Zim-dollar is at Harare airport’s duty free shops, where 100 trillion Zim-dollar notes are given away as souvenirs with bottles of Scotch.
What is most surprising is Mr Tsvangirai’s almost Gandhi-like attitude towards Mr Mugabe. He says the president is an important part of the “transitional solution”.
“In fact, he is an indispensable, irreplaceable part of the transition.”
He says he and Mr Mugabe meet every Monday “and we sit down and discuss cabinet business, developments in the ministries — or lack of development. It is a workable relationship, surprisingly. Yes, I am actually surprised. Who would have thought that sworn opponents like us could sit down and talk about what’s good for Zimbabwe? It’s an extraordinary experience.”
This is far from the conventional picture of the two men’s relationship. For daring to challenge his rule, Mr Mugabe has over the past decade visited the most awful brutality on Mr Tsvangirai, subjecting him to imprisonment and beatings, and on three occasions charging him with treason. Over the past 10 years Mr Tsvangirai has survived three assassination attempts and after last year’s rigged elections went into hiding as a fourth had been planned.
The well-educated Mr Mugabe has also labelled his rival an “ignoramus”, a reference to Mr Tsvangirai’s humble background and lack of formal education. But Mr Tsvangirai has borne all this with a quiet dignity that even his opponents acknowledge, and if the future of his beloved Zimbabwe depends on his supping with the devil then he will do so with good manners.
He says he “understands the historical basis of the obsession with 'Mugabe the Tyrant’ and I’m obviously not going to defend his past, but we have created and crafted a new political dispensation in which he is a part”.
His forbearance is constantly being tested by the 85-year-old Mr Mugabe and his inner circle of Zanu PF extremists, who are clearly not going quietly into the good night. For example, Mr Mugabe has refused to allow Mr Tsvangirai to move into the official prime minister’s residence, an insult that Mr Tsvangirai deflects by saying that he has found perfectly acceptable alternative official accommodation that he will be moving into as soon as he returns to Harare.
Mr Mugabe has also refused to swear in Mr Tsvangirai’s deputy agriculture minister, Roy Bennett, a white farmer who has suffered imprisonment and beatings at the hands of the old regime. Again, Mr Tsvangirai puts his faith in the SADC-backed agreement: “Roy Bennett will be sworn in when I get back — that is in the agreement. Mugabe has no political reason to hinder the swearing in.”
Also in the agreement is the provision that within the next 18 months a new constitution will be drawn up — with limits on presidential power and strict rules for the conduct of elections — and elections will be held. Cynics believe that Mr Mugabe is using Mr Tsvangirai to go out into the world to drum up financial aid and to encourage the Americans and Europeans to lift travel restrictions imposed on the Zanu PF inner circle, after which he will call a snap election, rig it as he has all previous elections, and cling on to power. Again, Mr Tsvangirai dismisses this as nonsense: “Firstly, this trip was my initiative because after four months I wanted Western leaders to hear first hand what was happening in Zimbabwe. Secondly, the process is under way and after a constitutional referendum, the president and the prime minister will decide when the elections will take place.”
Throughout our conversation Mr Tsvangirai is animated, enthusiastic and passionate about what he sees as his country’s new era. Only when the subject of his wife’s death in a road accident in March is raised does he become subdued. He had been married to Susan for 31 years and they had six children, and although she was not politically active she provided support for her husband, bringing him food in prison after beatings and nursing him back to health after he was released. The antithesis of Mr Mugabe’s gaudy, brash wife Grace, Mrs Tsvangirai was much loved by ordinary Zimbabweans.
Mr Tsvangirai was in the car when it was hit head on by a US aid lorry only three weeks after he was sworn in as prime minister. There were immediate suspicions that it had been an assassination attempt. From his hospital bed, Mr Tsvangirai hastily dismissed the rumours.
“It was an accident,” he says evenly. “It was a terrible experience. Susan and I had gone through all the trials, the tribulations and the triumphs and she would have loved to have seen this new Zimbabwe. There was a great outpouring of grief from the people of Zimbabwe when she died and in many ways her death united Zimbabweans.
“It has been a great personal loss. But I continue and what motivates me to continue is that my family and my party cannot afford for me to retreat.”
He pauses for a moment and then returns to his main theme – the selling of the new Zimbabwe. This weekend he will hold a meeting in Southwark Cathedral for exiled Zimbabweans living in Britain, of which there are an estimated one million. He says he wants them to come home and help rebuild the country.
“The government needs these professionals,” he says, and then more pragmatically, “and we also need whatever savings they made to help economic development. It is time to come home.”
Name: Morgan Richard Tsvangirai
Born: March 10 1952 in Gutu, Masvingo
Education: Gokomere High School. Left school early to seek work
Family life: Married Susan Mhundwa in 1978 and the couple had six children. She was killed in road accident on March 6
Career: At Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 he joined Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF. In 1989 he became General Secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. In 1991 he founded the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to oppose Zanu PF
High point: Sworn in as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe on Feb 11
Best known for: Consistent opposition to excesses of Mugabe regime with little support from other African leaders. The exception is Ian Khama, the President of Botswana