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

Sunday Times - - Obituaries Classified -

● 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

Ndlovu

[Ts­van­gi­rai] was the first to lift his head and look the dic­ta­tor in the eye Tendai Biti For­mer MDC sec­re­tary-gen­eral

Pic­ture: AFP

Mor­gan Ts­van­gi­rai ad­dresses an elec­tion cam­paign rally in Chin­hoyi, Zim­babwe, in 2013. Ts­van­gi­rai, who died this week at the age of 65, had an un­canny abil­ity to move crowds and con­nect with peo­ple’s griev­ances, honed while he was a trade union leader.

Pic­ture: AFP

The late Zim­babwe op­po­si­tion leader Mor­gan Ts­van­gi­rai seen here leav­ing court in Harare af­ter he was ar­rested and se­verely beaten by po­lice in 2007.

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