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Zimbabwe's funeral diplomacy

Mourners at Susan Tsvangirai's funeral

By Brian Hungwe
Harare

Could the tragic car crash which killed the wife of Zimbabwe's long-time opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, serve to cement the shaky unity government which he joined as prime minister just a month ago?

Zimbabweans of all political colours have been moved by the warm words of condolence at Susan Tsvangirai's funeral spoken by President Robert Mugabe, who for many years has labelled her husband a traitor.

Many Zimbabweans were deeply pessimistic about the chances of the two men, who have been such bitter enemies for many years, genuinely working together.

This seemed to be borne out as Mr Tsvangirai's supporters remained in detention and violence returned to some of the few remaining white-owned farms, even after he was sworn in.

On hearing the news of Mrs Tsvangirai's death, the first reaction of many Zimbabweans was to assume it was the work of Mr Mugabe's feared secret police.

Several of Mr Mugabe's previous rivals have perished in suspicious car crashes.

But Mr Tsvangirai has said he accepts it was almost certainly an accident.

And Mr Mugabe's speech at a church service in Harare for Mrs Tsvangirai has completely changed the mood in Harare's political circles.

Robert Mugabe: 'Our hearts are with you'

"We are sincerely saddened by the death of Susan and we hope that Morgan will remain strong," he said. "I plead with you to accept it, it's the hand of God."

He was accompanied by all the ministers from his Zanu-PF party.

The president has had a habit of reserving some of his most hate-filled speeches for funerals.

Zimbabwe-watchers say he has long used the death of his political allies, buried at Heroes' Acre - a hill just outside Harare - to show his real self.

In the past, this has meant lashing out at Western imperialism and accusing all those who want change in Zimbabwe, personified by Mr Tsvangirai, of being puppets of the former colonial power Britain.

Maybe the new tone is genuine.

Some say Mr Mugabe does want the power-sharing government to work so he can regain the people's confidence during his final years in politics.

Real test

Mr Mugabe, his wife, Grace, and Vice-President Joyce Mujuru visited Mr Tsvangirai in a Harare hospital as he recovered from the injuries he sustained in the crash that killed his wife.

Mourner holding a rose
Zanu-PF and MDC supporters mixed freely at the funeral

These images - unthinkable just a few weeks ago - have touched a real nerve, giving hope to even those who were least hopeful about the power-sharing government.

The president also called for an end to violence - and this is obviously the real test of whether Zimbabwe's politics really has changed.

As Mrs Tsvangirai was being buried, there was another glimmer of hope.

Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku - seen as an ally of President Mugabe - ordered the release on bail of Roy Bennett, nominated by Mr Tsvangirai as deputy agriculture minister.

He was arrested last month on the day the other ministers were sworn in.

New tone

At Mrs Tsvangirai's funeral, one of the prime minister's closest allies, Finance Minister Tendai Biti, said the president's words showed Mr Mugabe was "after all a human being".

He was among those most reluctant to share power with Mr Mugabe during the tortuous negotiations leading to the deal signed in 2008 but only implemented five months later.

We had sleepless nights, sleeping in the cold, and in the mountains, all because we supported the opposition
Muchineripi

Mr Biti said Mrs Tsvangirai's death had served to "unite us in spirit".

"She has broken the walls that the 15 September [power-sharing] agreement could not," he added.

One of the Tsvangirais' six children, Edwin, was also moved.

"Thanks, the president of the Republic of Zimbabwe, for words that changed my understanding of you," he said in front of thousands of mourners in Harare.

Zimbabwe's state-controlled media has also covered the funeral in huge detail and used the sort of tone previously reserved for those interred at Heroes' Acre.

When Mr Tsvangirai was sworn in, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and The Herald newspaper at first carried on either ignoring him or finding analysts, assumed to be Mr Mugabe's spokesmen, to criticise his statements.

Simon Badza, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, says both parties now realise they need each other.

"When friends and foes meet, they find ways of removing their differences. The funeral has provided that opportunity.

"It provided room for funeral diplomacy."

But not everyone is convinced.

'Have a dream'

Mr Tsvangirai's home area of Buhera, where his wife was buried, was not spared the violent retribution which swept opposition areas after last year's elections.

Roadblocks were set up where suspected opposition activists were beaten up, their houses were burnt and several were killed.

Morgan Tsvangirai
Can Morgan Tsvangirai overcome his grief to rebuild Zimbabwe?

"We had sleepless nights, sleeping in the cold, and in the mountains, all because we supported the opposition," said Muchineripi, 36, as he walked home from burying the prime minister's wife.

The power-sharing government is a transitional arrangement, supposed to lead to new elections in two years' time - a prospect he dreads.

"It will take time for that feeling to disappear, I don't want to live in fear myself, but I can't help it," Muchineripi said.

But Zanu-PF and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters were able to mix freely at the funeral.

Bishop Simbarashe Sithole told them: "We should able to respect each others' political opinions.

"I would want us to have a dream today, that the sign or symbol of the fist [Zanu-PF] and open palm [MDC party symbol) should not be a licence to violence, killing, and murder."

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