The year 1952, when Morgan Tsvangirai was born, doesn’t stand out in Zimbabwe’s history, but in the years around it, there were major shifts taking place that informed the trajectory the country was to take, and gave rise to the trade unionist-cum-politician.
It was four years since the great railway strike of 1948, an action described by Zimbabwean writer and anthropologist Lawrence Vambe as “the first strike which threatened the white man”. In 1953, the federation of Nyasaland (Malawi), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) was inaugurated. The federation was a loose arrangement meant to strengthen the hand of the white minority in Southern Rhodesia over the other two territories.
According to Munyaradzi Gwisai, Tsvangirai’s antipathy for the left is grounded in the politics of the time he was born: “This guy is born in 1952, four years after the general strike, and there is a big shift in Rhodesia’s ruling class ideological thrust. The [idea] is, up until then, there had been a white supremacy, exclusion of the black workers, the attempt to stop the rise of the black middle class.”
Until after the World War II, it had been almost impossible for skilled African workers to practise in Salisbury, now Harare, and other towns. There is an old interview in which Reuben Jamela, a skilled worker turned unionist, talks about the segregation he experienced in the 1930s and 1940s.
African builders, carpenters and other skilled workers “were not allowed to practise as builders in Salisbury. We were allowed to practise in the farms and tribal areas and in other rural areas … if you were found handling a trowel you were charged [and] whoever gave you the trowel was also charged. All that Africans were allowed to was to puddle the cement and to hand the bricks to the builders or hand the planks to the builders. That was all. It was a serious crime to be found on the scaffold in possession of a trowel or a brick or a saw.”
Godfrey Huggins, Southern Rhodesia’s prime minister between 1933 and 1953, and chief proponent of the federation, decided this couldn’t continue. “Huggins then says, what we are seeing in Rhodesia is nothing new,” Gwisai elaborated. “It happened in Europe 100 years ago. What we are seeing is the emergence of a new [black] proletariat and it’s demanding its place in the sun,” the lawyer explained. “We are too few and we are of a different race. We must split the black middle class from the black industrial working class.”
In the early 1940s, a split in the Southern Rhodesian Labour Party resulted in the formation of the Southern Rhodesia Communist Party, an organisation that had people such as writer Doris Lessing as members. She had arrived in Southern Rhodesia from Persia (Iran) as a five-year-old with her parents. As she grew older, Lessing began to question her place of privilege in Southern Rhodesia.
In Under My Skin, the first volume of her autobiography, which covers her youth, childhood and adulthood up until 1949, when she leaves for London, she writes about a life-changing encounter while on holiday in Cape Town. There she met a woman who said to her, “What can one say about a people who have stolen all the black people’s land and then talk about uplifting and civilising them? How can one describe a country where 100 000 white people use 1 million blacks as servants and cheap labour, refuse them education and training, all the time in the name of Christianity?”
Her inquiry into the anomaly in Rhodesia found impetus in two ways after World War II. A flood of refugees from Europe, fleeing Hitler, came into Southern Rhodesia (the writer’s surname comes from Gottfried Lessing, a German-Russian immigrant she married), as well as immigrants from Britain.
It had been decided that the Royal Air Force would train some of its pilots in Southern Rhodesia. A country in which there was “never anyone to talk to” suddenly became “full of all kinds of reading circles and political groups”, speaking about Robert Musil and Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and William Shakespeare as if they had been childhood friends.
Once a month, at the Meikles Hotel, the Grand Hotel and tea houses dotted around the town, they met and discussed subjects that, for this colonial backwater, were considered “absolutely raving revolutionary” – topics such as social security in England or whether discrimination based on race was fair.
When, as the Southern Rhodesian Communist Party, the group tried to establish links with its communist counterparts in South Africa, the South Africans questioned the basis for a communist party in Zimbabwe, and said that “black masses [in Zimbabwe] have no political consciousness”. I am reminded of an anecdote from an interview Lessing did with the oral history department at Zimbabwe’s national archives.
One day, Lessing and her brother were watching black Africans work on their family farm. As they toiled, they also sang an improvised work ditty. When Lessing asked one of the workers the meaning of the song, the reply was, “They are singing this song saying, ‘We are tired. We’ve been working since very early. We are hungry, and as usual the white baas and his sister are standing there watching us work. But it’s alright, it’s nearly Saturday, and we’ll get drunk and have a party!”
Gwisai bemoaned the collapse of the communist party Lessing had been part of in the late 1940s, just before the emergence of a black industrial class and the nationalist movement in the late 1950s. “If it had survived those seven or eight years, it would have had a huge influence [on] how the nationalist movement emerged.” Bolaño would surely agree that Zimbabwe’s history, like Chile’s, is full of encounters that never occurred.
Around the time Tsvangirai began his primary education at the mission school Silveria, the nationalist movement was taking shape. After finishing high school at Gokomere mission school, he moved to Umtali (now Mutare), a small town in the country’s east near the Mozambique border, where he worked as a loom weaver.
Tsvangirai joins an anti-communist union
Huggins’s vision of creating a tiny black middle class was realised in Tsvangirai’s life in 1974. One day, he saw an advert in the local newspaper for plant operators at Trojan, a mine owned by the multinational conglomerate Anglo American. Tsvangirai was one of 12 men selected for apprenticeship positions from about 700 applications. It was here that he joined the anti-communist Associated Mine Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe.
As Tsvangirai was being inducted into the black middle class (he was on $75 a week at a time when you could buy a car for $500), Rhodesia was descending into nationalist war that pitted Robert Mugabe’s Zanu guerrillas and Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu guerrillas against Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front.
This struggle, which attracted youths such as gender activist Margaret Dongo, former vice-president Joyce Mujuru, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Wilfred Mhanda and thousands others, was one Tsvangirai never contemplated joining.
“My first priority was my responsibility to the family … I never even considered leaving – except for a few wistful moments,” he told South African writer Sarah Hudleston in the biography A Face of Courage.
As the war spread from northeast to southeast, white plant operators would periodically be away on “call-up”, military service, which gave Tsvangirai a chance to advance in the workplace. “It is ironic that the bush war, which was waged to preserve Rhodesia as a sanctuary for whites, gave me so many opportunities to advance myself.”
By 1976, Tsvangirai had risen to the high position of general foreman at Trojan Mine. He was only 24.
This is part two of a five-part series through our northern neighbour’s tradition of leftist politics, from pre-independence to the rising tide of neoliberalism in the post-Mugabe era.
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part I
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part III: Too late for change
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part IV: Mugabe’s only constant
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part V: The struggle dreams in mbira