On the afternoon of June 13 Morgan Tsvangirai walked into a room filled with his dejected senior lieutenants.
Just hours earlier President Robert Mugabe had, yet again, put his opponents on the back foot.
Mugabe had unexpectedly proclaimed that the election would be held on July 31, catching the Movement for Democratic Change unawares and sending it reeling.
“All of us were down. We felt all was lost,” recalls Jameson Timba, Tsvangirai’s senior international relations adviser and a close ally.
“But he walked into that room and gave us two options, which really were the same: a July 31 election or a non-July 31 election. He prepared us for both.”
They could either feel sorry for themselves or be brave and face up to the challenge of a new campaign, he told them.
By this time next week, on his third try, Tsvangirai could be president. The question is which Tsvangirai would the country get: the error-prone Tsvangirai, whose decision-making is purportedly so weak that one United States diplomat said he needed “hand holding”, or the courageous Tsvangirai, who stood up to Mugabe when others cowered.
This week senior aides spoke to the Mail & Guardian about the man who would be president. According to Jameson Timba, a president Tsvangirai would be that brave Tsvangirai – the humble former mineworker who identifies with the poor and a man who can motivate his team.
“Working with him over the past four years, I have grown to believe strongly he is what is needed to take this country forward,” Timba says.
Dislodging Mugabe will take some doing. He has been entrenched in power for more than three decades and is protected by a brutal, well-oiled regime.
Tsvangirai is not keen to go down as the candidate who always almost made it. His loss in 2008 was particularly painful and almost broke him, according to many close to him. This time, there is a steely resolve for that one final push.
“He has been doing four or five campaign meetings in a day on occasion; he has worked himself harder this time,” one official says. “The campaigns are peaceful this time and Tsvangirai has been drawing huge crowds.”
His “self-deprecating humour”, according to a senior aide, has been one mark of a campaign that has recaptured some of the fizz he had lost. He has often referred to himself as “Tsvangison” and “Chamatama”, the official says, names given to him by Mugabe – the first to suggest he is a white puppet and the latter a dig at his chubby cheeks.
A major knock
Another loss would be a major knock and could embolden some of his internal rivals to start calling for change. He has led his party since 1999 and would have been party leader for 20 years at the end of his first term in office should he win.
His critics say he never has a “plan B” but his allies think otherwise. In 2007, with the MDC’s fortunes waning, Tsvangirai devised a campaign of “democratic resistance” to Mugabe.
While on a flight, recalls Timba, he was asked what would happen if defiance failed. Did he have a plan B? “He said: ‘Why can’t my plan A be my plan B?’
“And, just as he said, our resistance campaign and the beatings he received in March that year ultimately forced Mugabe to the negotiating table.”
His opponents have pointed to his limited education as a drawback. Tsvangirai himself, in his memoirs, In the Deep End, reveals his own insecurities on the issue.
He rages at party rivals for targeting him by trying to sneak through a constitutional amendment that would have made it mandatory for a president to hold a university degree.
A dim view on education
He has a dim view of the high value placed on education. The “narrow technical traits our universities prize as higher learning can easily block our access to wisdom … deplete our intuitive gifts to a point where common sense ceases to be common”, he writes.
Perhaps to shake off that stigma, some of his more fawning handlers have taken to calling him “Dr Tsvangirai”, after he received an honorary doctorate from a South Korean university.
But Timba recalls a story once told by Tsvangirai, in which a friend of the prime minister, an unnamed head of state, was making a point that great leaders do not need to have a strong academic background.
“He [Tsvangirai] asked his friend how he had risen from waiter to president. His friend said: ‘A leader is a waiter; all a waiter does is go to a table and ask for an order and delivers that order’,” Timba says. Tsvangirai’s lack of struggle
credentials has made it tough for him to reach out to even moderate elements in the security structures.
He has tried to address that handicap, drawing derision when said he had intended to join the war “but my parents needed financial help to support the other children through school”.
But his lack of a war record counts little among his supporters, who back him for his courage and the “ordinary guy” aura that endears him to the people.
There have been times when his decision-making has failed him. In 2008, saying his life was in danger, he bizarrely sought refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare for over a week.
It gave Zanu-PF easy fodder. And in his memoir he admits to having been unaware of a clause in the Constitution providing for a run-off.
Like Mugabe he is fond of blaming everyone else for his mistakes. For falling for a sting operation that got him tried for treason in 2002, he blames Welshman Ncube. For the 2005 split, he blames Thabo Mbeki.
And for the women scandals that dented his image, his aides blame the intelligence services. The whole sordid affair was part of “Operation Blackhawk and Operation Spiderweb”, they say.
Some supporters express disquiet about his lifestyle. He has moved into a mansion and gone on cruises on the South Pacific, but insists he lives a “simple life”.
Is Tsvangirai prepared?
Next Wednesday Zimbabweans may put Tsvangirai into office, although, it seems, he has never prepared himself to cross that line. The “ultimate” in his career, he has said, was being in opposition.
Boarding a train to the city for the first time, he writes, he was “taking my first steps on a path towards national union leadership and, ultimately, a political career opposing the government of Robert Mugabe”.
Ever the president’s opponent but never the president. On Wednesday he hopes finally to change that.