Morgan Tsvangirai remembered: brave, heroic, flawed

Morgan Tsvangirai was brave, to many heroic, and a great human rights defender, he also had flaws.

Morgan Tsvangirai was a miner who became a trade union leader who challenged the economic policies of Robert Mugabe and the ruling Zanu PF in the mid-1990s. The economic policies he challenged was the economic structural adjustment programme pushed on Zimbabwe by the IMF which was causing increasing hardship, reducing employment, weakening public services. Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition to these policies led him to become increasingly critical of the authoritarian rule of Robert Mugabe who made no secret of his wish for Zimbabwe to be a one party state and for the president to have greater powers. Tsvangirai became a leader of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) a civil society body comprising trade unions, churches and ngos which argued for a more citizens rights based constitution and against proposals for a more centralised and controlling state. Out of the NCA a new political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged and Morgan Tsvangirai became its life-long leader.

Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC was the biggest political challenge Mugabe and Zanu PF had faced since independence in 1980. Tsvangirai was badly beaten, arrested, harassed, and attempts were made on his life. He remained steadfast in his support for human rights, a more inclusive, open, fairer Zimbabwe. He was almost certainly deprived of being President of Zimbabwe by electoral fraud, if not in 2002 then in 2008.

The first round of the 2008 presidential election showed he had a commanding, many thought decisive lead but the announcement of the result was mysteriously delayed for over a week. It was eventually announced Tsvangirai had 48% and Mugabe 43% meaning there would have to be a run-off. Zimbabwe then experienced its worst violence since the massacres in the mid-1980s. The MDC was not allowed to organise or campaign, there were killings, disappearances, arrests and harassment. Tsvangirai felt he had no option but to withdraw leaving Mugabe as the sole candidate.

Regional mediation by Thabo Mbeki, then president of South Africa, led to the formation of an inclusive government in 2009 with Tsvangirai as Prime Minister and Mugabe as President. Zanu PF used the period 2008-2013 to regroup, re-organise and in government Tsvangirai and other MDC ministers found the institutions of the state were so politicised in support of Zanu PF they lacked real power.

In 2006 MDC witnessed its first major split. Many blamed Tsvangirai for this saying he initially showed no leadership on a key issue and it was only when the MDC conference decided its position did he come out against and say he would not accept it. He took a majority of members with him and hence the MDC he led became MDC T (the T is for Tsvangirai). Without that split a united MDC may have won the 2008 election so decisively it could not have been stolen from it.  After the MDC lost quite heavily in 2013 Tsvangirai would not countenance stepping aside and further splits occurred. The opposition to Zanu PF became more fragmented and its main challenge became its internal politics.

In the past year however the three main MDC groupings signed a unity pact and agreed Tsvangirai would be their candidate for President. It was clear though that he was seriously ill. He had cancer but claimed his treatment was working. He was convinced he was the only one who could defeat Mugabe and even after Mugabe was forced from office Tsvangirai thought he was the only one who stood a chance of winning against Zanu PF. He had charismatic appeal especially to youth in urban areas. They admired his bravery, his courage, his willingness to take on Mugabe. In his last few months he would not allow the MDC to discuss and agree on a successor. There is a real risk that the MDC (T) will split into competing factions.

Morgan Tsvangirai will be remembered, celebrated, for his leadership on human rights, against corrupt and authoritarian rule, for a more inclusive Zimbabwe. There will though also be questions about his leadership style and the unanswerable what if, the MDC had not split? The elections had not been rigged?

Morgan Tsvangirai changed Zimbabwe. He changed its politics. He refused to accept authoritarian rule. He gave Zimbabweans hope and courage.

Morgan Tsvangirai born 10 March 1952 died 14 February 2018.

About the Author