Tsvangirai’s marriage woes good for African democracy: This is why

Wednesday September 19 2012

I can’t help but feel sorry for Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. The good man has been having embarrassing woman problems.

His wife, Susan, died in a car accident in 2009. Since then, he has been trying to get married, but all his attempts end up in a fiasco.

One time he was supposed to marry Locadia Tembo, and even went and paid lobola (customary bride price). Then things went haywire.

Tsvangirai and his supporters allege that wily President Robert Mugabe, his partner in an uneasy coalition government, and his supporters, sabotaged him.

Anyhow, a traditional chief ruled that Tsvangirai had paid lobola in the “wrong” month — November. Apparently local custom prescribes November as a dry month.

Tsvangirai was fined over 30 goats, and a big wad of US dollars (the Zimbabwe dollar has not fully recovered and is still worthless). He paid and abandoned the marriage plans, saying the whole thing had been polluted by politics.


Last week, he moved to wed his newfound love, Elizabeth Macheka. Ms Tembo would have none of it. She went to court to block the marriage, saying Tsvangirai couldn’t wed because he was still legally married to her.

However, before Tembo’s case could be heard, another South African woman popped up, alleging Tsvangirai had promised her a ring, then left her hanging. She wanted her shot at being Mrs Prime Minister. The courts dismissed her case quickly.

Tembo’s case, however, proved trickier. Since under customary law paying lobola constituted marriage, the court ruled that Tsvangirai couldn’t wed another woman in church.

The Zimbabwe PM then pulled a fast one on Ms Tembo; he turned his wedding to Macheka into a traditional one, because customary law allowed polygamy. You must just love Africa.

Anyhow, now Ms Tembo has gone back to court, and she wants Tsvangirai punished for lying under oath to influence a magistrate to issue him with a marriage licence.

Clearly then, we haven’t heard the last of this story. Of greater interest is what this says about Tsvangirai’s ability to be President of Zimbabwe in future — or even Prime Minister today.

His critics say if he cannot sort out two women and close a marriage deal neatly, how can he be trusted to negotiate a $950 million loan for 13 million Zimbabweans?

The situation is not helped by the fact that Tsvangirai has a reputation as an incompetent politician. Tsvangirai is looking bad, yes, so what could possibly be said in his defence? For starters, I think we tend to underestimate just how complex marriage is.

For example, it is easier to steal 500,000 votes from an electorate that hates you, than to marry a woman over the opposition of just two people — her father and mother.

If a district rebels against a strongman, he can send in the army, shoot the peasants, and restore order. The same man, however, cannot send the same army to force his mother-in-law to like him if they fall out.

Also, I think democrats and mild despots are not generally as efficient and decisive as dictators, because they get distracted listening to too many opinions and advice.

Uganda’s Idi Amin, for example, was a ruthless dictator. He was also lethally decisive in managing his domestic affairs. When he had issues with his wife Kay, he killed her. When he set eyes on the beautiful dancer, Sarah Kyolaba, he decided he would make her his wife.

But he was going to have no competition, so he had her boyfriend with whom she was living abducted. He was never seen again. It is believed Amin fed him to the crocodiles in River Nile.

Therefore, there is something to be said for a fumbler like Tsvangirai. The fact that he can’t clinically pull off a wedding without it being disrupted by other contenders for his affection means he also lacks the steely discipline and ruthlessness to establish a police state.

Most African countries face a choice of four types of government: One, an efficient “developmental” dictatorship. Second, a corrupt and inept dictatorship.

Third, an efficient democracy. Fourth, an incompetent democracy — the option that a Tsvangirai presidency promises.

I know many people who would prefer the Tsvangirai option to the former two forms of dictatorship. The man’s marriage troubles were not in vain.

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