'Zimbabwe's first truly charismatic leader'
From humble mine worker to one of a few brave enough to take on the violent Mugabe regime
A rural mine worker by profession and the eldest in a family of nine, Morgan Tsvangirai, who died in Johannesburg on Wednesday at the age of 65, will be remembered as the face and voice of the democratic movement in Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe’s strongest political opponent of the last two decades.
Until his death, Tsvangirai was at the helm of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has dominated Zimbabwe’s political landscape for the last 19 years, since it was formed in September 1999.
The MDC to a large extent owes its emergence to Tsvangirai, whose oratory skills and ability to connect with workers’ grievances saw him in the late 1990s become secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU)— which provided an anchor support for the then newly-formed political party.It was at the ZCTU that Tsvangirai also demonstrated the early sparks of being a firebrand leader — a trait which was a hallmark of his relationship with Mugabe.
Being an ever hands-on leader, Tsvangirai was also at the forefront of strikes and mass stayaways which he organised against Mugabe’s administration in 1997 to protest against tax increases by the government and the deterioration of workers’ living conditions.
The hands-on and frontline leadership demonstrated by Tsvangirai was rare at the time among the more well-known opponents of Mugabe, such as Joshua Nkomo, Margaret Dongo and Edgar Tekere.
With this frontline approach, Tsvangirai persisted despite the high personal risks involved. This was highlighted by the severe beating he received at the hands of police in March 2007.
Tsvangirai’s beating exposed the brutality of Mugabe’s government — which, whenever pushed into a corner by Tsvangirai, often resorted to brutality, violence and intimidation — to try and contain him.
The stayaways which Tsvangirai oversaw in the late 1990s crucially turned up the heat on Mugabe’s administration and forced it to reverse the decision to increase taxes, amid a wide-scale 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 in 1980 from Britain, that Mugabe had been forced to make a policy u-turn.
And the man who had made Mugabe bend over backwards was Tsvangirai, an unlikely challenger; a mine worker, with little education and no liberation struggle credentials.
While Mugabe reeled under the success of the stayaways, these turned Tsvangirai into a household name among ordinary Zimbabweans.
He won over the support of workers, urban dwellers, farmers, the private sector and student unions which were united by his rallying cry: “Mugabe must go.” The MDC was born.A master tactician and never one to rest on his laurels, Tsvangirai was able to build on each victory that he scored against Mugabe and was always on the lookout for ways to continuously raise the stakes against Mugabe.
In 2000, an opportunity availed itself, in the form of a referendum vote on a new constitution which, if adopted, would have entrenched Mugabe’s executive powers.
Tsvangirai again was at the frontline of the campaign to reject the referendum to adopt the new constitution.
Mugabe yet again had been stopped in his tracks by Tsvangirai and failed to have his way.
By then, the state propaganda machinery was at full throttle against Tsvangirai, labeling him a “stooge of the West” and accusing him of pursuing “a regime-change agenda”.
Tsvangirai’s eye, however, was on the election contest of 2002, which was to be the first of three consecutive direct face-offs with Mugabe.As with the poll defeats he subsequently suffered in 2008 and 2013, Tsvangirai claimed the election had not been free and fair.
He unsuccessfully turned for intervention from SA, the region’s powerhouse, the SADC, the regional bloc and the African Union.
Disagreements soon began to emerge within the MDC leadership, as it was forced to return to the drawing board on how to deal with a resistant Mugabe and Zanu-PF.
In 2005, as a result of internal disagreements, the MDC suffered the first of its two major splits under 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 split of the MDC into at least two units cast Tsvangirai as a leader that had lost control of the party and had refused to step aside to make way for a new leader.
He died without a successor.
The 2008 elections were a bitter-sweet outcome for Tsvangirai.
Despite suffering the split of 2005, the party was able to pick itself up and clinched a parliamentary majority against Zanu-PF in 2008, a feat which had never been achieved since independence in 1980.
Yet again Tsvangirai had taken on Mugabe and caused a major upset to the establishment.
However, the presidency eluded Tsvangirai as the election commission held onto the presidential results for one month.
When it 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 the latter 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 of the run-off vote.
Mugabe, the sole candidate in the run-off, was named the winner of the elections, but lacked legitimacy.
Led by Thabo Mbeki, then the SA president, mediation efforts got underway. An agreement was reached that Mugabe would share power with Tsvangirai in a unity government and be the prime minister.
Side by side, the former arch-rivals had to stand together in an attempt to restore a broken country and shelved aside their personal differences.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 cup of tea.
Looking on, MDC supporters blamed the unity government for having put Tsvangirai and the MDC leadership into a slumber.
Tsvangirai was seen to have lost the fire to keep Mugabe on his toes — perhaps dazzled by the trappings of the high offices which he now occuppied; marked by having aides, luxury top-of-the range vehicles and foreign trips.
But 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, who died in a car accident in March 2009.
She had been described as his moral compass.
In his book At The Deep End, Tsvangirai in his own words speaks of her as “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 with his new wife, Locardia Karimatsenga, became further dents to his armour.
Out of 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 elections.
However, a personal physical battle emerged when he was diagnosed in June 2016 with colon cancer.
His focus moved to his health and he slowly drifted away from Mugabe, who met his demise in a military revolt last November.
Tsvangirai’s death, at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg, has seen fellow comrades such as Trudy Stevenson, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Senegal, describe him as “the first truly charismatic leader” and “a real man of the people”.
Tsvangirai’s end will now be a test for his MDC party which faces an uncertain future without him. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Macheka.