Zim­babwe op­po­si­tion leader Ts­van­gi­rai dies

The Guardian - - INSIDE | NEWS - Ja­son Burke Africa correspondent

Zim­babwe’s main op­po­si­tion leader, Mor­gan Ts­van­gi­rai, has died aged 65. He had been suf­fer­ing from colon can­cer for at least two years, but his con­di­tion de­te­ri­o­rated rapidly in re­cent days de­spite treat­ment in South Africa.

His death will be a blow to the op­po­si­tion in Zim­babwe, com­ing only months be­fore the first elec­tions were due to be held in the for­mer Bri­tish colony since the end of Robert Mu­gabe’s near four-decade rule.

Ts­van­gi­rai’s ill­ness, revealed in 2016, has di­vided his Move­ment for Demo­cratic Change (MDC) party, with three deputy lead­ers and other of­fi­cials pub­licly ma­noeu­vring to suc­ceed the for­mer trade union leader.

The party will have to choose a new leader and launch a cam­paign against a resur­gent Zanu-PF, the rul­ing party, to con­test polls that may be held as early as May.

With­out its founder at the helm, the MDC is likely to face im­me­di­ate in­sta­bil­ity and could even split, hand­ing a gift to Zim­babwe’s new pres­i­dent, Em­mer­son Mnan­gagwa. A broader al­liance of seven po­lit­i­cal par­ties formed last year to take on Zanu-PF could also be desta­bilised.

Piers Pigou, the Zim­babwe an­a­lyst for the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group, said: “Ts­van­gi­rai’s death will force the MDC to con­vene an emer­gency con­fer­ence to sort out the dif­fer­ences be­tween the three vice-lead­ers. His sick­ness meant an im­passe around in­ter­nal dy­nam­ics, so this might force a res­o­lu­tion. That’s a pos­si­ble sil­ver lin­ing to this tragic event.”

The course of Ts­van­gi­rai’s life was de­ter­mined by his long po­lit­i­cal bat­tle against Mu­gabe, the for­mer guer­rilla leader who ran Zim­babwe since in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain in 1980 un­til Novem­ber.

The old­est of nine chil­dren, Ts­van­gi­rai left school at 16 to help sup­port his fam­ily. As a young miner he be­come a labour ac­tivist and rose through the ranks of the As­so­ci­ated Mine Work­ers’ Union. In 1988 he was elected sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Zim­babwe Congress of Trade Unions, the over­ar­ch­ing body of the coun­try’s labour move­ment.

In 1999 Ts­van­gi­rai founded the MDC. Although heav­ily in­flu­enced by the trade union move­ment, the party in­cor­po­rated the church, busi­ness, women’s and stu­dents’ or­gan­i­sa­tions and other groups.

As Mu­gabe launched a pro­gramme of rad­i­cal mea­sures de­signed to bol­ster his power, but which brought eco­nomic chaos, Ts­van­gi­rai and the MDC stepped up their chal­lenge to the gov­ern­ment through a se­ries of na­tion­wide strikes, and, de­spite fierce in­tim­i­da­tion, came close to win­ning power in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in 2000 and in a pres­i­den­tial vote in 2002.

Mu­gabe’s tac­tics of ha­rass­ment en­hanced the op­po­si­tion leader’s rep­u­ta­tion as a tena­cious, coura­geous op­po­nent of re­pres­sion. Im­ages of Ts­van­gi­rai after be­ing badly beaten fol­low­ing a prayer meet­ing that po­lice claimed was il­le­gal were pub­lished around the world.

The MDC won the first round of elec­tions in 2008 in the face of a vi­cious state cam­paign of violence against party work­ers and sup­port­ers. The MDC even­tu­ally joined a unity gov­ern­ment that lasted un­til the 2013 elec­tion, which Mu­gabe won.

Crit­i­cised for his ob­vi­ous af­fec­tion for the out­ward trap­pings of power, Ts­van­gi­rai emerged from of­fice a di­min­ished fig­ure. A leaked US diplo­matic ca­ble de­scribed him as “a flawed fig­ure, not read­ily open to ad­vice, in­de­ci­sive and with ques­tion­able judg­ment”.

Ts­van­gi­rai none­the­less dom­i­nated the frac­tured op­po­si­tion in Zim­babwe un­til his death.

“He was the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date for the op­po­si­tion al­liance. Re­cently they have been cam­paign­ing on the spirit of Ts­van­gi­rai alone. The dilemma is now to find some­one who will play that cen­tral role,” said Pigou.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: PHILIMON BULAWAYO/REUTERS

Mor­gan Ts­van­gi­rai, the trade union­ist and leader of the Move­ment for Demo­cratic Change, in 2013

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