Morgan Tsvangirai, the most popular Zimbabwean political leader

By Gama Mutemeri

Morgan Tsvangirai towered over all politicians in Zimbabwe in that he has been the only man to stand up to the Mugabe regime at the height of its powers.

At the funeral in the dusty rural areas of Buhera, in the South Eastern part of the country, Zimbabweans demonstrated that Tsvangirai was indeed the most popular political leader the country had ever known. The attendance was estimated at well over 100 000 people, the largest ever crowd at a funeral in the country.

Twice Tsvangirai had won the general elections, in 2002 and 2008 and twice, Robert Mugabe’s vice like grip on power had denied the former unionist the chance to lead the nation. All three elections in which Tsvangirai participated were rigged so it was never possible to establish how much Zimbabweans really loved him. Saying goodbye at his funeral would be their only chance.

Ravaged by colon cancer in its third year, in November 2017 Tsvangirai watched from the side-lines as the Zimbabwe Defence Force elegantly and effortlessly dislodge Robert Mugabe from power without sweat or a drop of blood. The army installed Mugabe’s former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa as the new boss.

Tsvangirai had tried to achieve the same outcome using the ballot box, and that same Zimbabwe Defence Force had protected the brutal dictator. Tsvangirai’s last shot of the dice was in 2013, in an election which he had been advised not to enter because the playing field was far from even. Wily Mugabe had reportedly enlisted Israeli election experts who had rigged the election with such perfection that Tsvangirai’s party lost hopelessly. His Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which carried the nation’s hopes for a democratic Zimbabwe into the 21st century, was so deflated after the 2013 defeat that it never really fully recovered.

Neither did he. The cancer did the rest to bring an end to his political career on Valentine’s Day in the year that he would be turning 66 years old. Robert Mugabe did not attend the funeral. President Emmerson Mnangagwa was present.

Morgan Tsvangirai towers over all politicians in Zimbabwe in that he has been the only man to stand up to the Mugabe regime at the height of its powers. Tsvangirai cut his political teeth as an executive of the Zimbabwe Council of Trade Unions, which had started off as a partner of Mugabe’s government. Relations soon soured as Mugabe’s Zanu-PF closed all political spaces to enjoy the fruits of independence as the only political party. Tsvangirai then formed the MDC which mobilised urban masses so effectively that Mugabe was forced to try every trick in the book to thwart its popularity. Tsvangirai and his executive were arrested, imprisoned and tortured on so many occasions that the country lost count. Yet Tsvangirai remained focused on the democratic cause by non-violent means, and never backed down.

As Mugabe’s economic policies failed the country in the early part of the century, more workers lost their jobs and membership of the MDC swelled.

Like all failing political parties, Zanu-PF intensified its grip on power as its popularity collapsed. MDC members were subjected to daily harassment and infiltration. Soon white commercial farmers who had been apolitical in post-independent Zimbabwe foresaw a looming economic disaster if Zanu-PF remained in power and started active support for the opposition.

This incensed Mugabe so much so that he revisited the history books, extracted some unfinished land agreement with his former colonial power Britain and then unleashed his militia thugs onto the white farmers under the disguise of land reforms. But this just made things worse for none other than Mugabe’s own party. Without white farmers as anchor customers, the agriculture-industrial complex which held together the country’s cities started collapsing, creating more unemployment and swelling further numbers of supporters for the MDC.

It was little surprising therefore that in the 2008 general election, the MDC won. However much the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) massaged the numbers, Zanu-PF lost. The best ZEC could do was to fiddle with the numbers to give MDC a slight edge over Zanu-PF, just enough to justify a runoff election of presidential candidates according to the constitution. It is here that things started going wrong for Morgan Tsvangirai.

According to MDC sources, he had flatly refused to engage with a faction of Zanu-PF which was opposed to Mugabe. Worst, against advice of his inner-circle, he refused to put enough effort in securing support of the military. If anything, confident that he would be their commander in chief, he had gone out of his way to not only ignore them but even to threaten them with possible prosecution.

Scared that their interests would be threatened by a Tsvangirai government, the generals persuaded a reluctant Mugabe that he would “win” the presidential run-off. And win they did after a military orgy of brutal violence against the country’s rural population in which hundreds were killed and thousands maimed in order to instil fear and vote for Mugabe in the run-off. Tsvangirai fled to Botswana.

The election and its results were widely condemned by all credible agencies, which lead the African Union and the regional body SADC to appoint South African then President Thabo Mbeki to facilitate a Government of National Unity (GNU). Tsvangirai became Prime Minister with Mugabe as President. With some semblance of political stability, the economy started on an upward trajectory.

But it is not in Mugabe’s DNA to share power. After 5 years, the next election came and Mugabe was back to his old tricks again. In the 2013 elections, Mugabe rigged so effectively that the results were almost impossible to challenge. Again, Tsvangirai’s weaknesses of ignoring advice caught up with him. It was an election in which Tsvangirai was not supposed to participate because it was triggered by a technicality and the timing favoured Zanu-PF. The MDC lost heavily, and Zanu-PF found itself with a majority in parliament.

Four years earlier, Tsvangirai had found himself a reasonably powerful and very eligible bachelor following the death of his first wife Susan. His colourful love life became the talk of the country and it did little to maintain his credibility as a trusted leader in conservative Zimbabwe. Some of the loss of support in the 2013 election would later be attributed to a personal life which portrayed a leader without self-control.

At the helm of the party he had founded for almost a decade and a half earlier, Morgan Tsvangirai was reported to have become quite autocratic. Dissenting voices were never tolerated, leading to splinter groups that formed several MDCs around him. Tsvangirai seemed unfazed, and his commitment to the democratic cause was vindicated when he found himself at the centre of opposition parties planning a coalition to fight Zanu-PF in the 2018 general elections. Of course, the coalition is coming at a price for some loyal members of his party who have stood by him while former executive members created splinter parties. There now seems a serious likelihood that without his strong personality, the MDC will now split in the middle.

Tsvangirai, being Tsvangirai was moving full speed ahead with the coalition at the time of his death. It is perhaps that character strength, the belief in his own ideas and the attraction of the masses to his personal brand that made him the most popular Zimbabwean political leader to date.

More stories in Issue 96

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Gama Mutemeri

Gama Mutemeri left journalism to train as a griot. This is his story this month.

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