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'A Man of The People': Morgan Tsvangirai, Face of Zimbabwe's Opposition Dies

Morgan Tsvangirai

Former Zimbabwe Prime Minister and leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai died in South Africa Wednesday at age 65.

Known by his supporters as MT or Save after his totem or lineage honorific name, Tsvangirai succumbed to colon cancer after a two-year battle.

Battle With Cancer

In a brief media statement two years ago, Tsvangirai had told the nation that, “On the 8th of May 2016, my Zimbabwean doctors referred me to South Africa where a further diagnosis revealed that I am suffering from cancer of the colon.” On the reason for going public, Tsvangirai said, "It is my firm belief that the health of national leaders, including politicians, should not be a subject of national speculation."

According to some analysts, Tsvangirai's dramatic political battle with former president Robert Mugabe stands as one of the most intriguing and important world events of recent times.

Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) leader Morgan Tsvangirai and Zanu PF's Robert Mugabe. (AP Photos/Collage by Ntungamili Nkomo)
Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) leader Morgan Tsvangirai and Zanu PF's Robert Mugabe. (AP Photos/Collage by Ntungamili Nkomo)

Mugabe labelled Tsvangirai a “puppet of the West who wanted to reverse the gains of independence”. The former president on many occasions told Zimbabweans that, “It was the Europeans and the British that created Tsvangirai as a politician.”

Despite being tortured in police detention, facing treason charges, multiple arrests and open provocation by the Mugabe regime, Tsvangirai preached tolerance and like U.S. civil rights movement leader Doctor Martin Luther King Junior followed the path of peaceful resistance. This approach won Tsvangirai wide approval from world leaders.

Invitation to the White House

The late Tsvangirai was only one of the very few African leaders who were invited to the White House in 2009 by former American President Barack Obama who praised him for his resilience. “Well, I want to welcome Prime Minister Tsvangirai to the Oval Office. Added President Obama, “He and his delegation have been meeting with my team throughout the day. I obviously have extraordinary admiration for the courage and the tenacity that the Prime Minister has shown in navigating through some very difficult political times in Zimbabwe. There was a time when Zimbabwe was the bread basket of Africa and continues to have enormous potential. It has gone through a very dark and difficult period politically. The President - President Mugabe -- I think I've made my views clear, has not acted oftentimes in the best interest of the Zimbabwean people and has been resistant to the kinds of democratic changes that need to take place.”

VaMorgan Tsvangirai nemudzimai wavo Amai Elizabeth
VaMorgan Tsvangirai nemudzimai wavo Amai Elizabeth

On the same trip, Tsvangirai had the opportunity to meet then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who also recognized the work he was doing in Zimbabwe.Well, I’vm delighted to welcome the prime minister back to Washington. We had very productive meetings last time when he was here. We continue to support the efforts for reform and positive changes inside Zimbabwe. And of course, the prime minister has played a major role in attempting to move his country on the right path.”

Humble beginnings

Tsvangirai was born on the 10th of March 1952 in Gutu, Masvingo province. He was married to Elizabeth Tsvangirai nee Macheka after his first wife Susan Tsvangirai died in a car accident in 2009. He was left injured and hospitalized after the crash. His former spokesman the late veteran journalist, William Bango who helped him edit his autobiography titled “Morgan Tsvangirai: At The Deep End wrote about his former boss, “Tsvangirai rose from village life as a son of a humble carpenter, Dzingirai Chibwe Tsvangirai and Lydia Tsvangirai, to struggling for power with former president Mugabe."

He added, "Tsvangirai had an advantage over many other rural Rhodesian children born in the 1950s – his parents believed he should receive the best possible education to ensure his future.” The first of nine children, Tsvangirai made the most of his schooling and subsequent opportunities, which saw him start his working life as a sweeper in a textile factory and move on to the Trojan Nickel Mine as a plant operator.

Beginning of Trade Unionism

It was here that Tsvangirai’s involvement with the trade union movement began, and in 1985 he took up the full-time position of vice-president of Zimbabwe’s Associated Mine Workers Union.

Three years later he became secretary-general of the biggest labor union in the country, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). Over the next decade Tsvangirai played a key role in organizing and uniting Zimbabwe’s trade union and civil movements into an informal opposition to the ruling Zanu-PF government of Mugabe which by then was a de facto one party state having united and formed a government of national unity with the main opposition party PF Zapu in 1987.

The labour movement in the late 1990s under Tsvangirai was to provide the wind to the sails for the formation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change or MDC as worker grievances then gave rise to a formidable challenge against the Mugabe's government.

On his time as secretary general of the ZCTU, Tsvangirai said, “In 1998, together, we turned the workers’ voice into a sonorous national chorus that could shout for a national shut down to articulate the genuine concerns of the country’s workers. Together, we galvanized the workers into a formidable force that could blow out the smoke from our productive industries to clamor for national attention. The government began to take us seriously. We achieved that together.” Tsvangirai’s ability to organize protests against the government led many to push him to form a labor backed opposition party.

Formation of the MDC

This culminated, in September 1999, in the launch of the MDC. Said Tsvangirai about the launch, “In 1999, through the national working people’s convention, together with the workers of this country, Zimbabweans clamored for a labor-driven political party. That working people’s convention gave birth to the Movement for Democratic Change in 1999. Since then, the party has become a perennial people’s voice in Parliament. It became a formidable political force that administered the country’s major cities and towns and Zanu PF---- to this day----remain visitors and strangers in the country’s cities, towns and other rural enclaves where the gospel of change has made a huge imprint.”

Under Tsvangirai’s leadership, the MDC contested the 2000 parliamentary election and the 2002 presidential election, both hampered by electoral irregularities and intimidation, including two sets of treason charges leveled at Tsvangirai.

The opposition leader like many Zimbabweans after the liberation war was once an avid supporter of Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party. But he grew to detest their alleged “violence and oppression”.

Government of National Unity

Tsvangirai, the only opposition leader who has ever won an election against Mugabe since 1980, was denied outright victory in 2008, after failing to get the 50 percent plus one vote. Tsvangirai won the presidential election by 47 percent of the votes, while Mugabe got 43 percent.

President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai at the constitution signing ceremony
President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai at the constitution signing ceremony

But Tsvangirai the standard-bearer of the MDC withdrew after hundreds of his supporters were allegedly murdered by Mr Mugabe’s supporters. He alleged that his party was facing a war rather than an election, “and we will not be part of that war.”

In his letter of withdrawal to the Zimbabwe Election Commission on the 23rd of June 2008, Tsvangirai cited a number of reasons for withdrawal: “The violence currently obtaining in this country which has resulted in numerous deaths, destruction of homes, displacement of various people and injuries to people is something that is clearly in the public domain. As of today, the country has recorded at least 86 deaths, 10 000 homes destroyed, 200 000 people displaced and 10 000 people injured.”

The UN Security Council unanimously agreed to take its first formal action on Harare by ruling that a free and fair presidential election run-off was impossible because of violence.

The council, including Zimbabwe’s allies South Africa, China and Russia that had previously long opposed discussion on Zimbabwe, made the decision after the Netherlands said opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai had taken refuge in its Harare embassy fearing for his life.

The protagonists parties in Zimbabwe, namely ZANU PF and the two MDC factions agreed on 15 September 2008, to work together to halt political and economic impasse that had crippled the nation in the new millennium.

This agreement (affectionately known as the Global Political Agreement (GPA)) ushered in an array of hope and paved way for the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU), which ended on the 29th of June 2013.

Analysts argue that Tsvangirai's successful formation of a coalition government kept alive Zimbabwe's hopes of peace and democracy, establishing Tsvangirai according to Bango as a “luminary in a continent all too often known for bloody leadership.”

Books about Tsvangirai

This is the same conclusion that was reached by author Professor Steven Chan in his book, Citizen of Zimbabwe: Conservations with Morgan Tsvangirai. In July 2004, as he was awaiting the verdict in his treason trial, Tsvangirai spent several days in conversation with Chan. Chan writes: 'I have not made a saint of him, not even an Atlas. I hope I have not criticized him too much or too unfairly. Probably no one could have done for Zimbabwe what he has."

Leader of Zimbabwe's opposition party Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) Morgan Tsvangirai greets supporters at a rally in Harare, July 29, 2013.
Leader of Zimbabwe's opposition party Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) Morgan Tsvangirai greets supporters at a rally in Harare, July 29, 2013.

In another biography, Face of Courage: A Biography of Morgan Tsvangirai, Sarah Hudleston described Tsvangirai as, “an internationally respected man who has dedicated himself to restoring Zimbabwe to a workable democracy.”

Tsvangirai Accolades.

In his Life Time, Tsvangirai collected a number of accolades from organizations throughout the world recognizing his fight for human rights in Zimbabwe. For two consecutive years Tsvangirai was seen as the favorite to win the much coveted Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2010, he was listed among hopefuls to land the award having lost out to Obama in 2009. The National Democratic Institute, a US based pro-democracy group, gave one of its highest honors to Tsvangirai in 2010. The NDI's W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award which recognizes individuals and groups who have demonstrated a commitment to democracy and human rights.

Tsvangirai was introduced to the audience by NDI chair Madeleine Albright, who told his story of a man working to overcome many obstacles. "The essence of free government is that when one set of policies is not working, an alternative can be considered,” she said. “But when democracy has been subverted, presenting that alternative requires courage, persistence and faith. Fortunately, Mr. Tsvangirai possesses each of these qualities. His character is steady and strong."

In 2009, the International Bar Association gave Tsvangirai an award “in recognition of his inspiring leadership in the struggle to secure the rule of law in Zimbabwe’.

In accepting the award Tsvangirai said, ‘I am merely the voice of millions of Zimbabweans that held on to an idea for ten years; to restore dignity to Zimbabwe, to restore security to Zimbabwe and to restore hope.”

He was also given the International Lifetime Achievement Award 2009 from the Spanish Foundation Cristobal Gabarron, for his fight for peace and democracy.

In 2013, Tsvangirai was awarded an honorary doctorate in public administration by the Sun Moon University in South Korea, his second one from the same country in three years after he was conferred with an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by Pai Chai University in 2012. He was handed the honor in recognition of his efforts towards democracy and peace in Zimbabwe.

Future of the Party

As Tsvangirai’s health deteriorated he hinted in a media statement on the 8th of January that he was considering stepping down, “At a personal level, I feel an air of satisfaction as I reflect on the great journey we have traveled together even as I seriously ponder about the future. You, the people have traveled with me a journey that had its own tribulations."

He added, "Yet it was also a journey in which we worked hard and achieved so much together. I am in the process of writing a book that is set to be a collective national treasure on the great things we have achieved together over the years in our journey of service and sacrifice.”

This announcement triggered a bitter struggle among his three vice presidents, Nelson Chamisa, Thokozani Khupe and Elias Mudzuri which is threatening to tear the party apart. The three all claim to be anointed successors of Tsvangirai.

Leaders of the MDC Alliance. Picture: MDC)
Leaders of the MDC Alliance. Picture: MDC)

University of Kent lecturer and Tsvangirai’s former advisor, Doctor Alex Magaisa, said the opposition was facing its worst crisis yet. He wrote on his blog: “The current situation is typically what constitutions are designed to cover when they include incapacitation as a ground upon which a president can be removed from office. “It is also recognized that when a leader becomes incapacitated, the unscrupulous around him can use their proximity to take advantage of him."

Magaisa argued that the behavior of people around Tsvangirai suggested that he was being taken advantage of by those claiming to represent his best interests. “The public is no longer sure who is telling the truth.”

The veteran trade unionist did not name a successor but hinted that he might want the young Turks in his party to take over, “I am looking at the imminent prospects of us as the older generation leaving the levers of leadership to allow the younger generation to take forward this huge task that we started together so many years ago with our full blessing and support.

It was therefore not by accident but by design that when I disclosed to you my health status, I also took a bold step to appoint an additional two Vice Presidents to assist me. As I have said before, while politicians only think about the next election, true statesmen think about the next generation, for current leaders are only but caretakers for future generations. We do not have any entitlement to lead but we have a duty to serve."

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