Morgan Tsvangirai: Opposition leader and fiery adversary of Mugabe 1952-2018
Cheated out of electoral victory, the MDC leader nevertheless scored blows against Zanu-PF
● Morgan Tsvangirai, who has died in Johannesburg on Wednesday at the age of 65, was the face and voice of the democratic movement in Zimbabwe and, for the past two decades, the fiercest political opponent of Robert Mugabe.
Tsvangirai’s contest for power against Mugabe, one of the doyens of the 1970s liberation war, was a modern-day remake of the David and Goliath conflict.
Using the few assets he had — markedly his excellent oratory skills and an uncanny ability to move crowds — Tsvangirai was never afraid to take on his opponent.
“What we want to tell Mugabe is that you must go peacefully. If you don’t want to go peacefully, we will remove you violently,” Tsvangirai told about 20 000 supporters in Harare on the first anniversary of the Movement for Democratic Change, in 2000.
He steered the Movement for Democratic Change until his death. Formed in September 1999, the party owes its rise to the fiery Tsvangirai — a mineworker from Buhera, in Manicaland, by profession, who developed his ability to connect with workers’ grievances early on, while he was a trade union leader.
In the late 1990s he rose to become secretarygeneral of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which later provided anchor support for the MDC.
It was in the ZCTU that Tsvangirai demonstrated the early sparks of being a firebrand leader, a trait which became the hallmark of his relationship with Mugabe.
Always a hands-on leader, Tsvangirai was at the forefront of organising strikes and mass stayaways against Mugabe’s administration in 1997 to protest against tax increases by the government and the deterioration in workers’ living conditions.
The frontline leadership demonstrated by Tsvangirai was rare at the time among Mugabe’s better-known political opponents, such as Joshua Nkomo, Margaret Dongo and Edgar Tekere.
Tsvangirai persisted with this combative approach despite the high personal risks involved. This was highlighted by the severe beating he received at the hands of police in March 2007. Images of Tsvangirai with swollen eyes and a gash on his head were beamed across the world.
The beating exposed the brutality of Mugabe’s government, which, whenever pushed into a corner by Tsvangirai, resorted to violence and intimidation to try to contain him.
The work stayaways which Tsvangirai oversaw in the late ’90s crucially turned up the heat on Mugabe’s administration.
It was forced to reverse a decision to increase taxes amid an economic crisis compounded by the crash of the Zimbabwean dollar, rising inflation and food riots.
This was the first time since the country’s independence from Britain in 1980 that Mugabe had been forced to make a policy U-turn.
And the man who had made Mugabe change his mind was Tsvangirai, an unlikely challenger, a mineworker with basic education and no liberation struggle credentials to boast of, in contrast to Mugabe’s academic degrees and struggle background.
Mugabe reeled under the success of the stayaways, which turned Tsvangirai into a household name among ordinary Zimbabweans.
He won the support of workers, urbanites, farmers, the private sector and student unions, all united by his rallying cry: “Mugabe must go.” The MDC was born.
This personal popularity, however, may have played a part in his delay, even until his death, in naming a successor.
Could Tsvangirai, the most popular opposition political figure in Zimbabwe, countenance sharing the stage and limelight with anyone else?
A master tactician, Tsvangirai was able to build on each victory, no matter how minor, so long as he pushed harder against Mugabe.
In 2000, there came a referendum on a new constitution, which, if adopted, would entrench Mugabe’s executive powers. Tsvangirai headed the campaign to reject the referendum, and again stopped Mugabe in his tracks.
By then, Zimbabwe’s state propaganda machinery was working at full throttle against Tsvangirai, labelling him a “stooge of the West” and accusing him of pursuing “a regime-change agenda”.
He had three treason charges brought against him — unsuccessfully.
Tsvangirai’s eye, however, was on the big prize: the election of 2002, which was to be the first of three consecutive direct face-offs with Mugabe.
Within two years, the euphoria of “chinja maitiro”, the MDC’s “change” slogan, and “Mugabe must go” pointed to the real possibility of Mugabe losing the election.
It was not to be.
As with the poll defeats he subsequently suffered in 2008 and 2013, Tsvangirai claimed the election had been rigged and turned, unsuccessfully, to South Africa for intervention.
Disagreements began to emerge within the MDC leadership, and in 2005 the party suffered the first of two major splits, with one faction following secretary-general Welshman Ncube.
Despite the breakaway, the party was able to pick itself up and win a parliamentary majority against Mugabe’s Zanu-PF in 2008, a feat that had not been achieved once since independence.
However, the presidency was a near miss for Tsvangirai due to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission holding on to the presidential election results for one month.
When the commission finally released the results, it declared that there would be a run-off vote, as neither Mugabe nor
Tsvangirai had won an outright majority to be president, although Tsvangirai had won the first round of voting.
A military-led campaign of violence, however, forced Tsvangirai to pull out of the run-off.
“I will not walk to State House among the dead bodies of Zimbabweans,” Tsvangirai said as he explained his reasons for pulling out.
Mugabe, the sole candidate in the run-off, was named the winner of the election, but lacked legitimacy.
Led by Thabo Mbeki, the then South African president, mediation efforts got under way. An agreement was reached that Mugabe would share power with Tsvangirai in a unity government — Tsvangirai would be prime minister and Mugabe president.
The arch-rivals had to shelve their personal differences and stand together in an attempt to restore a broken country.
Tsvangirai became prime minister on February 11 2009, beginning a tenure that had mixed success.
His entry into government brought some sort of political stability and economic relief to the country, with the two old foes meeting every Monday for a ritual they started of talking over a cup of tea.
Looking on, MDC supporters blamed the unity government for having put Tsvangirai and the MDC leadership into a slumber. Tsvangirai, the fiery orator, had lost the fire in his belly to keep Mugabe on his toes.
Perhaps he was dazzled by the trappings of the high office which he now occupied, marked by having aides at his beck and call, transport in luxury vehicles and the chance to jet off on foreign trips.
Those closest to Tsvangirai in the MDC say the incident that had the most profound effect on him was the death of his wife Susan in a car accident in March 2009.
She has been described as his moral compass. In his book, At the Deep End, Tsvangirai speaks of her as a “confidante, adviser — almost a mentor — a mother and grandmother, a champion of the struggle for change and democracy in Zimbabwe”.
Without her by his side, Tsvangirai’s weaknesses became a public spectacle.
A series of ill-fated relationships and an acrimonious separation from his new wife, Locadia Karimatsenga, further dented his armour.
Ejected from government after he lost the election of 2013, Tsvangirai began to make preparations to put up one last fight against his longtime foe in this year’s election.
After the MDC’s defeat in the 2013 elections, Tsvangirai was cast as a leader who had lost control of the party but refused to step aside to make way for a new leader. This caused a second split in the MDC, with dissenters following secretary-general Tendai Biti.
In June 2016, Tsvangirai was diagnosed with colon cancer.
The void in Zimbabwe’s political landscape caused by an ill Tsvangirai and a weakened MDC resulted in the springing up of citizen-led movements such as #ThisFlag and Tajamuka.
Tsvangirai tried to weigh in with support for the citizens’ movements, but his focus had shifted to his health and it seemed he had lost sight of the goal of 1999, when the MDC was formed. “Mugabe must go” had lost its punch as a slogan.
Mugabe eventually did go, last year, but not in a way Tsvangirai could have foreseen 20 years ago, when he first threw his hat into the political ring to fight the veteran politician.
There has been an outpouring of support for Tsvangirai from regional leaders, and those in the US and the EU.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said Tsvangirai had played a “profound” role in Zimbabwe’s politics.
Those who worked with Tsvangirai most closely, who were there in the early days of drafting the vision of democratising Zimbabwe, carry the greatest pain.
“We are stunned, we are wordless,” said Biti. “He was our father, commander and our leader. He was the warmest among us and the most loving of all of us. The founder who, when no one dared, was the first to lift his head and look the dictator in the eye. He took body blows for all of us he led. We are stunned.”
The Zimbabwe government, under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, is assisting the Tsvangirai family with the funeral costs.
Tsvangirai’s death will be a test for the MDC party, which faces an uncertain future without him.
A vicious power struggle to succeed him is now in full swing.
Alex Magaisa, Tsvangirai’s adviser in the power-sharing government, said that one of the most glaring ironies of his death was that “those who fought against him are showing him respect, while those who fought with him are fighting each other and showing disrespect”.
Tsvangirai is survived by his third wife, Elizabeth Macheka, and six children from his first marriage.
He will be buried in Buhera on Tuesday. — Ray
[Tsvangirai] was the first to lift his head and look the dictator in the eye Tendai Biti Former MDC secretary-general