Tsvangirai takes it on the chin
A badly injured Morgan Tsvangirai appeared on television last month, and probably did his party his greatest service since leading it to within a whisker of overthrowing President Robert Mugabe almost seven years ago.
The images of Mr Tsvangirai's swollen face, bloodshot eyes and stitched-up head instantly propelled him towards martyrdom status, suggesting that the Movement for Democratic Change's crusade against the increasingly despotic Zanu-PF was finally approaching something of a tipping point. If anything has served to remind the world of the urgency of Zimbabwe's long-running crisis, it was these interviews from Mr Tsvangirai's hospital bed.
Mr Tsvangirai has been a big speck in the eye of Mr Mugabe since June 2000, when the MDC won 57 of the 120 seats in Zimbabwe's parliament, against 62 won by Zanu-PF. It was a spectacular result for the MDC, which had been in existence for less than a year and suddenly seemed capable of ending a government that had already shown itself unequal to the task of governing.
Formed in September 1999, the MDC grew out of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which had been in an alliance with Zanu-PF until it broke away under the leadership of Mr Tsvangirai.
Mr Tsvangirai was born in Gutu, central Masvingo province, in 1952. According to the MDC's website, after school 'he had his first taste of trade unionism' when working at a clothing factory in Mutare.
Two years later he joined the now-defunct Trojan Nickel Mine in Bindura, north of Harare, where he spent 10 years, rising from plant operator to general foreman.
Mr Tsvangirai 'became branch chairman of the Associated Mine Workers Union and was later elected into the executive of the National Mine Workers Union before becoming secretary-general of the ZCTU in 1988'.
By the late 1990s, Zimbabwe was feeling the first convulsions of change, particularly in the form of the economic structural adjustment programme, or Esap, imposed by the World Bank to correct almost two decades of financial mismanagement. Hugely unpopular, Esap triggered riots across the country, particularly in Harare, where thousands marched in need of food - and leadership.
Surprisingly, given the proto-revolutionary mood of that time and the success of the MDC's other candidates, Mr Tsvangirai was not voted into parliament in the election that followed in June 2000, apparently having miscalculated the nature of his party's support, and perhaps that of the movement of which he was by then chairman.
Instead of seeking a mandate from an urban constituency, Mr Tsvangirai chose to contest a seat in the countryside, which would be unassailably Zanu-PF territory, a legacy of the nationalists' fight against the country's white minority rule. In those days, guerilla leaders such as Mr Mugabe quite correctly proclaimed that 'land is the paramount issue'.
In the urban areas, however, where people's livelihoods depended on jobs in sectors such as services, manufacturing and mining, land was still something only for building a house upon. Consequently, the MDC won most of the seats in all big cities and towns, including Harare and Chitungwiza, a city of 1 million that arose about 25km southeast of the capital soon after Zanu-PF came to power in 1980.
So strong was the MDC's support in urban constituencies that in the eastern city of Mutare, voters chose a white candidate (a farmer named Roy Bennett) over his black Zanu-PF rival, a feat almost unimaginable at the time. Clearly, ethnic credentials were not that much of a factor, if at all in the MDC's early ascendancy.
To this day, Chitungwiza in particular is an MDC stronghold, and a crucible of resistance to the Zanu-PF. It has suffered badly in recent years from repeated crackdowns, including the notorious Operation Restore Order that targeted rural migrants to Harare and its surrounding areas.
Had Mr Tsvangirai chosen to represent Chitungwiza in 2005 and articulate its mandate in parliament, it is easy to imagine he might be Zimbabwe's president by now, assuming he followed this up with some solid leadership.
Despite presiding over a rift in the organisation, Mr Tsvangirai seems to remain popular within the MDC. Its website says he is 'a self-made person, a solid administrator, competent thinker, charismatic leader, democratic team player and above all, a compassionate family man. He has an unshakable appreciation of the key challenges facing Zimbabwe as a country and Zimbabweans as a people'.
However, in 2005 an MDC splinter group broke away over the issue of whether to contest Senate elections, to which Mr Tsvangirai was opposed.
The two factions remain on cordial terms, but Mr Tsvangirai and his supporters have accused Arthur Mutambara, leader of the rival faction, of dividing the opposition on Mr Mugabe's behalf.
There is also another hint of what Mr Tsvangirai could be, in the shape of Frederick Chiluba, the trade union leader who became president of Zambia, Zimbabwe's neighbour to the north.
Mr Chiluba rose through the ranks of the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions and was jailed by former president Kenneth Kaunda for organising strikes in 1981. Mr Chiluba formed the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, which ousted Mr Kaunda democratically and peacefully in 1991. The MMD still governs Zambia, and although Mr Chiluba lost the party's leadership in 2001, he later became head of the Organisation of African Unity.
Mr Tsvangirai, however, has yet to be elected to any public office. In June 2000, he opted to represent a rural constituency in Gutu, probably thinking that as a member of the Shona nation, he could count on ancestral loyalties, despite the MDC's manifest urban destiny.
Since his defeat in that election, Mr Tsvangirai has yet to gain the stature that now beckons. The MDC has been stung by some corruption scandals, particularly involving its members elected to office at the municipal level.
Most damaging has been the split in the organisation in 2005. The party now holds fewer seats in parliament (around 50) than it won June 2000, a consequence of its own actions and leadership as much as any repression by Zanu-PF and the state apparatus that it commands.
Among the more bizarre setbacks with which Mr Tsvangirai was associated was a plot allegedly to assassinate Mr Mugabe that led to his trial on treason charges soon after the 2000 elections.
In a conversation with Ari Ben-Menashe, an Israeli businessman with a reputation for deceit and double-dealing, Mr Tsvangirai had used the word 'eliminate' when talking about his hopes of replacing Mr Mugabe as president. Mr Ben-Menashe promptly handed over a tape-recording of the conversation to the Zimbabwean government's PR consultants.
In 2004, a judge acquitted Mr Tsvangirai of the capital offence. But the trial diminished Mr Tsvangirai's stature, if only because he had been shown to take seriously Mr Ben-Menashe, who himself called Mr Tsvangirai 'stupid for even talking to someone like me'.
Someone similarly unimpressed with Mr Tsvangirai is apparently South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is under ever increasing pressure to recognise the dangers of Mr Mugabe's despotic rule on his country's northern border, but is unlikely to take any action that would serve the cause of Mr Tsvangirai. and the MDC (as Zimbabwean author Peter Godwin argued in The New York Times this week). Supporting Mr Tsvangirai would embolden South Africa's trade union federation, Cosatu - an ally of the MDC and an 'increasingly fractious member' of the ruling alliance.
Putting any pressure on Mr Mugabe through Mr Tsvangirai, in other words, might rebound in the form of problems for the African National Congress with Cosatu. Indeed, after Mr Tsvangirai was seen on television with his injuries, Cosatu held anti-Mugabe protests in Johannesburg.
'Thus has Zimbabwe become a function of South African domestic politics,' as Godwin noted.