By Ray Ndlovu | Business Day |
A rural mine worker by profession and the eldest of nine siblings, Morgan Tsvangirai will be remembered as the face and voice of the democratic movement in Zimbabwe and former president Robert Mugabe’s fiercest political opponent in the past two decades.
He died at the age of 65 at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Until his death, Tsvangirai led the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which was launched in 1999 and has dominated Zimbabwe’s opposition political landscape since. His oratory skills and ability to connect with workers’ grievances saw him rise in the late 1990s to become secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which provided an anchor for the MDC.
His firebrand traits were a hallmark of his relationship with Mugabe.
A hands-on leader, Tsvangirai was at the forefront of strikes and mass stayaways that he organised against Mugabe’s government in 1997 to protest over tax increases and the deterioration of workers’ living conditions.
He persisted despite the high personal risks involved, which was highlighted by the severe beating that he received at the hands of police in March 2007. It exposed the brutality of Mugabe’s government.
The stayaways in the late 1990s turned up the heat on Mugabe’s administration and forced it to reverse the decision to increase taxes sorely needed during an economic crisis compounded by the crash of the Zimbabwean dollar, rising inflation and food riots. It was the first time since the country’s independence from Britain in 1980 that Mugabe had been forced to make a policy U-turn.
The success of the stayaways turned Tsvangirai into a household name in Zimbabwe. He won the support of workers, urban citizens, farmers, the private sector and student unions who were united behind his rallying cry: “Mugabe must go!”
The MDC was born.
A master tactician and never one to sit on his laurels, Tsvangirai built on each victory that he scored against Mugabe.
In 2000, a referendum was called on a new constitution, which, if adopted, would have entrenched Mugabe’s executive powers. Tsvangirai was at the frontlines of the campaign to reject the new constitution and Mugabe was yet again stopped in his tracks.
The state propaganda machinery went full throttle against Tsvangirai, labelled him a “stooge of the West” and accused him of pursuing “a regime-change agenda”.
The MDC contested the 2002 elections, the first of three consecutive direct face-offs with Mugabe’s governing Zanu-PF. Tsvangirai claimed that the elections had not been free and fair, and did so again in 2008 and 2013.
He unsuccessfully asked SA, the Southern African Development Community and the AU to intervene.
Disagreements began to emerge within the MDC’s leadership as it sought new strategies to deal with Mugabe and Zanu-PF.
The MDC suffered two major splits, the first in 2005 and led by Welshman Ncube, then its secretary-general. The second split was led by Tendai Biti in 2014, after the MDC’s defeat in the 2013 elections.
The party was able to rise again and clinched a parliamentary majority against Zanu-PF in 2008. Another first-time feat since independence in 1980.
But the presidency eluded Tsvangirai when the election commission held on to the presidential results for one month and then declared that there would be a run-off vote, as neither Mugabe nor Tsvangirai had won sufficient votes to be president.
A military-led campaign of violence forced Tsvangirai to pull out of the run-off.
“I will not walk to State House among the dead bodies of Zimbabweans,” he said.
Mugabe, the sole candidate in the run-off, was inaugurated again, but lacked the legitimacy to rule.
Thabo Mbeki, then president of SA, led mediation efforts and an agreement was reached that Mugabe would share power with Tsvangirai, who would be prime minister of the country. Side by side, the former arch-rivals had to stand together in an attempt to restore a broken country and shelve their differences.
Tsvangirai became prime minister in February 2009 and his tenure had mixed success.
His entry into the government brought some political stability and economic relief, and the two old foes met every Monday for a cup of tea.
MDC supporters blamed the unity government for putting Tsvangirai and the rest of the MDC leadership into a slumber. They complained that Tsvangirai lost the fire needed to keep Mugabe on his toes.
His supporters also worried that Tsvangirai was dazzled by the trappings of high office, marked by luxury vehicles and foreign trips.
But people closest to Tsvangirai say that his fire was doused when his wife, Susan, died in a car accident in March 2009.
In his book At the Deep End, Tsvangirai describes 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 a nasty separation from his new wife, Locadia Karimatsenga, showed the chinks in his armour.
Out of government after he lost the election contest in 2013, Tsvangirai began to make preparations to put up one last fight against Mugabe in the elections planned for 2018.
However, he was diagnosed in June 2016 with colon cancer. His attention shifted to his health and slowly drifted away from Mugabe, who was forced to resign following a military revolt in November 2017.
Trudy Stevenson, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Senegal, described him as “the first truly charismatic leader” of Zimbabwe and “a real man of the people”.
Tsvangirai’s death will be a test for the MDC, as he had refused to step down from its leadership due to his ill health and it has no successor.
He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Macheka.