This week on Tuesday the three main daily newspapers in this country scrambled after one story.
NewsDay, the Daily News and The Herald led with the story that widowed Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai had married traditionally his long-time girlfriend Locadia Karimatsenga Tembo.
A mere two days later, NewsDay and the Daily News reported that there had been no marriage after all, but that Tsvangirai had merely paid damages for impregnating Tembo.
The two papers hinted this had been a political sting operation to tarnish Tsvangirai. The Herald stuck by its story that there had been indeed a marriage. This has scrambled the whole picture.
Of course, alarm bells should have begun to ring after Tsvangirai’s spokesperson Luke Tamborinyoka categorically denied that such an event had ever taken place, saying somewhat irritably: “If you believe that you may as well believe that Jonathan Moyo is a white man.”
Now Tsvangirai is reportedly threatening to sue over the story.
So, what could have happened? It’s difficult to definitively say because more, much more, could still unravel as there is — or was — a long-running relationship involved, and Tembo herself has not been heard.
But one view, not entirely far-fetched, is that this could be a foretaste of political dirty tricks to come into play as we approach the election season.
“In terms of trends, a rough rule of thumb is that incumbent parties tend to play the most dirty tricks, perhaps because they have the ways and means to do so.
It’s also true that parties with the strongest ideologies — be they Democratic or Republican — fight dirtier, possibly because they are not only pushing a candidate, but an entire way of life,” writes historian Joseph Cummins, well aware of the dirty underside of the American democratic process, in his book, Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises, which chronicles the campaign smears and attacks, that have typified United States elections since George Washington’s win in 1789.
Coming back to Zimbabwe, there is no party more ideological than Zanu PF; and there is no party more keen and adamant to maintain the status quo than Zanu PF.
Earlier this year was a report that counter-intelligence had come up with a plan to expose real or imagined sexual escapades of the top officials of the MDC formations as part of discrediting them in the eyes of voters, leading to their electoral rout.
Three of them – MDC-T leader Tsvangirai, party secretary-general Tendai Biti and MDC-N leader Welshman Ncube — have already been “exposed” in the State-controlled media over alleged sexual indiscretions.
But it’s highly doubtful if this on its own will work at all. The most celebrated sex scandal of recent times involved former US President Bill Clinton and a White House junior staffer Monica Lewinsky, which erupted in 1998.
Clinton’s political enemies and the hostile media demanded that he resign over the affair, but, to their consternation, his ratings rose. Shot back a middle-aged African-American woman: “Name one President – in fact, one politician – who hasn’t tried some stuff like that.”
Commented a young white male: “As long as he is doing a good job, I have no problem. Whatever he did is between him and his wife (Hillary).” Another middle-aged black woman said: “He put healthcare on my table.
I also like it that when I look at my pay cheque, there is 2c more in it.” Said another young white male: “On his time he can do what he wants — and it shouldn’t be anybody’s concern.” People vote for leaders, not saints.
As long as those leaders deliver, people won’t preoccupy themselves with their private indiscretions. But Tsvangirai should not take this as a cue for reckless behaviour because Zimbabwe, in comparison to the US, is socially conservative so it could be one scandal too many for him.
If he is not seen to uphold family values, then that’s politically disastrous. Society frowns upon powerful people who pick and dump women as they wish.
The other aspect to this is the role of the media. It appears the Press swallowed this “marriage” line hook, line and sinker.
As in other industries, each of the three main newspapers in this country is watching their competitors, so the adage that false news travels fast has never been more true.
Former US President Lyndon Johnson’s treatment of the Press during his 1964 election campaign serves as an example. He remarked to an aide that “reporters are puppets”, and had his people feed them misleading information about his rival’s campaign.
Here in Zimbabwe, this is exacerbated by the fact that the State-controlled media has been an unabashed Zanu PF cheerleader, rooting openly for the party’s candidates and leading the way in smearing candidates of the opposing parties.
Sadly, some in the private media are beginning to copy these extremely bad habits. Although newspapers can have their preferences, this blatant electioneering — including for the MDCs — should be avoided.
There is need for journalists capable of grasping issues without mixing them.
So, what can we make of Tsvangirai’s “November surprise”?
The first lesson is that there are politicians who are not only after defeating their opponents, but also destroying them.
They really sink their teeth into you. The second — and crucial — lesson is that Tsvangirai himself, like Clinton before him, needs to make a public statement, because the game has risen above official spokespersons and it’s no more — if it ever was -— a private issue.
Clinton faced his demons and is regarded as one of the most successful US Presidents in modern times.
So, Zimbabweans needs a clear, full answer – not a scrambled one – from one who aspires to be their President.