Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, currently visiting Australia, had a full round of appearances in Melbourne yesterday, including an interview with Tony Jones on Lateline and a public lecture in the evening at Melbourne University.

Different audiences care about different things; Jones was unfailingly sympathetic and dwelt on the personal risks that Tsvangirai faces, but some in the university audience wanted to know why he hadn’t gone further and embraced armed resistance to the Mugabe regime.

Tsvangirai forcefully defended his refusal to resort to violence, saying that violent regime change had repeatedly failed in Africa, and that democracy could not be successfully achieved by undemocratic means.

His strategy, as he put it, is for democratic struggle, not armed struggle.

The precedents are certainly on his side. Time and again, African dictators have been overthrown by armed uprising, often assisted by neighboring states, with the promise of a return to democracy and human rights: Uganda’s Idi Amin in 1979, Ethiopia’s General Mengistu in 1991, Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, and countless others. But the results have almost invariably been disappointing. Removal of one dictator doesn’t mean the end of dictatorship.

Precedents the other way — of peaceful democratic change — are not exactly plentiful, but they include Zimbabwe’s ever-present great neighbor, South Africa. Tsvangirai evidently believes that the same sort of evolution is still possible in Zimbabwe, and that Robert Mugabe can be elbowed aside without bloodshed.

He may be right. Although it is an economic basket case, Zimbabwe still has a few remnants of democracy. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change is harassed and demonised, but still functions legally; he has been charged with treason but acquitted, suggesting that the judiciary retains some independence. Tsvangirai questions Mugabe’s good faith, but continues to engage in negotiations.

The fact that Mugabe’s regime is about the worst that Africa has on show today is itself a sign of progress. Twenty years ago the continent was littered with murderous tyrants and kleptocrats; democracy has been steadily advancing, although there is a long way to go.

Morgan Tsvangirai seems like a man who knows that the tide of history is on his side, and that the 83-year-old Mugabe is an anachronism. Let’s hope that change can happen before Zimbabwe descends further into ruin.