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Irene Petras on the legacy of Morgan Tsvangirai – Personal reflections from a faraway land

By Irene Petras

He had a deep, throaty laugh. It would start as a chortle, way down in his diaphragm, bubble up through his stomach, suck in oxygen from his lungs, and finally escape in a loud, sustained gurgle, infecting all those around him. This laugh would mark so many pivotal points throughout the years.

Irene Petras
Irene Petras

At the age of 25, and after obsessively following the South African politics of change during my university years, my real political education began.

This naive white Zimbo sat in her small shoebox of an office at a local law firm and listened to an animated Yvonne Mahlunge Gwashawanhu as she spoke about the MDC and the vision this nascent movement had for our country – then listened to the booming voice of Brian Tamuka Kagoro down the passage in his office, talking about constitutions, trade unions, students, politics. Those who know me will know that I listened, didn’t say a lot, questioned much, observed, and digested over time.

It was another year before I met this MDC leader for the first time – serendipitously at the High Court in Harare. Morgan Tsvangirai was challenging his loss in the 2000 parliamentary elections to Kenneth Manyonda in Buhera North.

It was during these long days in a dingy, depressing courtroom that I first came to know about people like Tich Chiminya and Talent Mabika – may they continue to rest in peace. The heart-rending testimony of witness after witness made this party come to life, their stories tangible, terrifying, yet inspirational, their leader real and present.

On 26 April 2001, Judge DeVittie found in favour of Morgan Tsvangirai – perhaps the first, or one of the first of scores of judgements over the years commencing “Morgan Tsvangirai versus XYZ.” That was the first time I heard that laugh.

Over the years, fate and privilege found me crossing paths with the MDC president, mostly in the context of many, varied legal battles.

During 2003-2004, as I was starting my adventures at Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, we met once again at the High Court during president Tsvangirai’s treason trial. During his incarceration, there was an outbreak of measles at the prison. One day in court, I sat and talked with him as I commissioned one of his affidavits. A few days later, I came down with measles.

When I regaled him many years later with my mischievous tale of “How Morgan Tsvangirai Gave Me Measles,” that laugh boomed around the room – matched only by how he cackled upon meeting us just after we magweta were given a thorough hiding by the police in 2007 for protesting the unlawful detention of our learned colleagues, Andrew Makoni and Alec Muchadehama. “Now you lawyers are truly part of the struggle!” he guffawed, as he admired our bruises.

There were difficult, dark times too, when laughter was more difficult to come by. March 11, 2007. The joy-turned-sadness of post-29 March 2008 election madness.

The sterile hospital silence magnifying the pain and loss that was so apparent in him after losing Amai Susan Tsvangirai on 6 March 2009. The shock of post-31 July 2013 elections. Despite these body blows, president Tsvangirai would pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again. And that, to me, was one of his most endearing and enduring qualities.

When I graduated from law school in South Africa in 1998, one of my lecturers asked me what I planned to do next. I told him that I was returning to Zimbabwe to practice law. He gave me a sidelong glance, and said, “Zimbabwe?! What do you want to do that for? Nothing good can come of that!”

I have never been a card-carrying member of any political party. I will never be cut out for politics. But people like Morgan Tsvangirai, through politics and our shared legal battles, deepened my love for the law and what it can achieve when applied humanely and with intent to protect, to uplift and make lives and life better, not for a select few, but for the many. They have also opened up my eyes to how those with no love for their country can abuse institutions to perpetuate suffering.

But life is about more than the law and politics (even in Zimbabwe!) and here again, Morgan Tsvangirai and those giants of the struggle of our generation, living and late, have been beacons.

They affirmed me as a Zimbabwean, beyond skin colour, and enlarged my family beyond measure as cadres became sisters and brothers. They showed me that we can all make a difference if we have hope, love, open hearts – and a lot of humour!

They taught me that everyone is human and makes mistakes, but that we can forgive and love each other in spite of the pain.

They pushed me to overcome fear for self and others – to speak, even as the voice faltered, and to act and stand firm, even when instinct was telling the legs to run away. Courage. Sacrifice. Determination. Friendship. Patriotism. Belief that a better Zimbabwe is not only possible, but inevitable.

For these life lessons, I am grateful and I will never forget. To me, this is the legacy of Morgan Tsvangirai – why I mourn his loss and will miss him deeply.

I wish I could see that lecturer again. I want to look him in the eye, and guffaw one last time – and dedicate that to Morgan Tsvangirai for proving him wrong.

Irene Petras is a human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe