Tsvangirai obituary

Morgan Tsvangirai

Courageous Zimbabwean politician who risked his life to lead the struggle against Robert Mugabe’s tyrannical regime for two decades

The Times

February 16 2018


Morgan Tsvangirai meets supporters in Harare on the eve of the general election in 2000ODD ANDERSEN/EPA

In 1997 Robert Mugabe’s thugs burst into Morgan Tsvangirai’s tenth-floor office in Harare and tried to push him out of the window. He was saved by his secretary’s screams, but left lying in a pool of blood.

In 2002 a doctored video surfaced of Tsvangirai purportedly plotting with a former Israeli intelligence agent to assassinate Mugabe. For two years he faced a possible death sentence, until a judge acquitted him.

In 2007 the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was arrested and beaten so badly that his skull was cracked. Photos of his bruised and bloodied face shocked the world.

Tsvangirai had plenty of human frailties, but he did not lack courage. Stocky and charismatic with a strong baritone voice, he led the opposition to Mugabe, the liberation hero who became a tyrant, for two decades. He was imprisoned and beaten. He was vilified as a western stooge in the state-controlled media and enjoyed little support from other African countries because he was challenging one of the continent’s iconic independence leaders.

Tsvangirai did not abandon the struggle, however, and he would undoubtedly have become president had Mugabe not stolen three elections by rigging the vote and suppressing the opposition.

“I will soldier on until Zimbabwe is free,” he wrote in 2007. “Far from killing my spirit, the scars they brutally inflicted on me have re-energised me. I seek no martyrdom. I only seek a new dispensation in my country in which citizens live freely in prosperity and not in fear of their rulers.”

The most egregious theft occurred in 2008, when the regime unleashed such a violent onslaught against the MDC and its supporters that it became known as “chidudu” (the fear). Tsvangirai finally withdrew from the contest to stop the bloodshed but the international outcry was so great, and Zimbabwe’s economic plight so desperate, that Mugabe’s South African patrons forced him to form a national unity government with the MDC.

Tsvangirai served as prime minister for four years and Zimbabwe enjoyed a brief respite from the worst of Mugabe’s depredations but the arrangement served the old “crocodile” well. It gave his Zanu-PF party time to regroup and tarnished the MDC. International attention moved on. Mugabe stole the next election with virtual impunity. Thereafter the opposition was divided, disorganised and demoralised, and Tsvangirai was afflicted by cancer.

Morgan Richard Tsvangirai was born in the village of Buhera, 130 miles south of Harare, in 1952, the eldest of nine children. He attended missionary schools and gained eight O levels, but was forced to start work to support his siblings before he could do his A levels after his father, a labourer, died when he was in his teens. For the same reason, he took a job in an elastics factory in Umtali rather than join the liberation struggle at a time when African nationalism was sweeping the continent and war against white minority rule had erupted in Zimbabwe.

Two years later he won an apprenticeship at a nickel mine owned by Anglo-American in Bindura, northeast of Harare. He remained there for ten years, rising through the ranks to become a plant supervisor, and married Susan Nyaradso, with whom he had six children: Garikai, who moved to Canada; Vimbai, who left for Australia; Rumbidzai, who has a degree in finance; and Edwin and the twins Vincent and Millicent, who all live in South Africa.

Tsvangirai wrote of Susan in his autobiography: “There would be times in the future when she literally restored me to life and health after vicious assaults and supported me and many others through thick and thin while we faced trials, persecution and false accusations. Truly, a man was never so blessed in a life partner.”

Midway through his time in Bindura, Zimbabwe gained independence and Mugabe became the country’s first democratically elected prime minister. At that time Tsvangirai regarded Mugabe as a hero and joined the victorious Zanu-PF. “I would have laid down my life for him,” he said later.

Morgan Tsvangirai with his first wife, Susan, in 2005JON HRUSA/EPA

Tsvangirai also joined the Associated Mine Workers Union. He became a branch chairman, was appointed to the national executive in 1983, and three years later moved his family to Harare to become a full-time vice-president of the union. In 1989 he became secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), and his disillusionment with Mugabe took root as the increasingly authoritarian government failed to improve the lot of ordinary workers.

Under Tsvangirai the ZCTU ceased to be an appendage of Zanu-PF and became one of the ruling party’s strongest critics. While Mugabe highlighted Tsvangirai’s failure to fight in the liberation struggle, the leader of the MDC was seen as having the common touch. A teetotaller who did not smoke, he lived simply in a suburb of Harare and drove an old, battered Mazda, a far cry from lifestyles of the ruling elite.

He was detained for six weeks for supporting a student demonstration against government corruption. After that he orchestrated a series of strikes against the government’s economic policies. The thugs tried to push him from an office window after he organised a nationwide strike against a punitive tax increase.

By then the economy was deteriorating and the full horrors of Mugabe’s massacre of opponents in Matabeleland in the 1980s had begun to emerge. Tsvangirai and other civic leaders responded by forming the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) to press for radical reforms.

Two years later the NCA mutated into the MDC, which was launched in September 1999 before 20,000 exuberant supporters at Harare’s Rufaro stadium, the scene of Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations 19 years earlier. Its watchword was “chinja” (change); its symbol the open hand, the antithesis of Zanu-PF’s clenched fist.

The MDC grew rapidly and scored its first significant victory in February 2000 when voters decisively rejected a proposed new constitution designed to strengthen Mugabe. The referendum was the first defeat of Mugabe’s political career and he responded with the brutal repression that would become his trademark. Before the parliamentary elections four months later he unleashed his thugs and security forces, seizing nearly 1,000 white-owned farms to disperse a huge potential reservoir of MDC supporters among the country’s one million black farmworkers and their families.

Scores of MDC supporters, including two of Tsvangirai’s campaign staff, were killed and thousands beaten in what he called a “devil’s carnival”. The MDC still won 57 of the 120 elected parliamentary seats, but not the one Tsvangirai contested in his native Buhera. He challenged that result, and 30 others, in court, but to no avail.

The farm seizures continued, destroying the very cornerstone of Zimbabwe’s economy and paving the way for the hyperinflation that would reach 500 billion per cent a few years later. So did the repression.

Three months after the election the MDC’s headquarters was attacked with grenades. A week later Tsvangirai’s office was ransacked. In January 2001 the printing presses of the opposition Daily News were blown up. Tsvangirai was accused of inciting terrorism after he warned of violence if Mugabe did not step down. The Supreme Court acquitted Tsvangirai, but he was subsequently charged with the capital offence of treason in a bizarre attempt to force him out of the 2002 election.

The charge centred on a scarcely audible video that purportedly showed Tsvangirai discussing Mugabe’s assassination with a former Mossad agent named Ari Ben-Menashe in a hotel in Montreal, Canada. Although the film had clearly been manipulated, the charge hung over Tsvangirai for two years before he was acquitted.

Despite that, Tsvangirai did contest the 2002 presidential election. It was characterised by the same brutality, intimidation, poll-rigging and media propaganda. He was shot at, stoned and arrested as he sought to campaign across the country. Mugabe was declared the winner with 1,685,212 votes to Tsvangirai’s 1,258,401. Tsvangirai called it “the biggest electoral fraud in history” and most international observers agreed. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth.

Undaunted, and rejecting advice that he leave the country for his own safety, Tsvangirai continued to lead the opposition to Mugabe as Zimbabwe’s economy began to implode.

In 2005 Zanu-PF increased its parliamentary majority in another sham election. To punish urban constituencies that voted MDC Mugabe ordered his security forces to demolish the slums of Harare and other cities, destroying the homes and livelihoods of 700,000 Zimbabweans in an operation dubbed Murambatsvina (“Remove the Filth”).

A few months later Tsvangirai suffered another blow when the MDC split after he overruled a decision by the party’s national council to contest Senate elections; although he fought tirelessly for democracy, he certainly had an authoritarian streak. Then, in March 2007, he was hauled from his car by police and, with several other MDC activists, beaten with iron bars until he lost consciousness. Two days later he was released with a fractured skull, prompting international condemnation.

The 2008 presidential election was worse than any before. It took place against a background of hyperinflation, 80 per cent unemployment, nationwide hunger and the collapse of public services. Desperate for change, voters elected 99 MDC MPs, giving it control of the legislature for the first time. But the regime suppressed the results of the presidential election for five weeks before announcing that Tsvangirai had won with 47.9 per cent, compared with Mugabe’s 43.2 per cent — leaving him short of the 50 per cent required to avoid a run-off. Although Tsvangirai considered the results to be fraudulent, he had little choice but contest the run-off.

The regime then unleashed a savage onslaught against the MDC and its supporters. Hundreds were killed. Thousands were tortured. “When those who survive, terribly injured, limp home, or are carried or pushed in wheelbarrows, or on the back of pick-up trucks, they act like human billboards, advertising the appalling consequences of opposition to the tyranny,” Peter Godwin wrote in a book entitled The Fear, on those three brutal months.

Tsvangirai fled to neighbouring Botswana, fearing for his life. He finally returned but found campaigning impossible. Finally, to avoid further bloodshed, he withdrew from a contest that he called a “violent sham”, leaving Mugabe to coast home unopposed.

In the subsequent government of national unity, which was forced on Mugabe by the South African president Thabo Mbeki, Tsvangirai served as prime minister and cabinet posts were shared between Zanu-PF and the MDC. But Mugabe benefited much more than Tsvangirai from the deal.

The Zimbabwean dollar was abolished, ending hyperinflation. A semblance of fiscal sanity was restored. The humanitarian crisis eased. But the MDC and its ministers were inevitably tainted by government while Mugabe reneged on promises, thwarted reforms and kept tight control of the security and intelligence services. “He saw us as a temporary lifeline to enable him to rise from an abyss,” an outmanoeuvred Tsvangirai wrote in his memoir.

His tangled love life also attracted unwelcome headlines. Shortly after becoming prime minister, his wife of 31 years was killed in a car crash from which he emerged with only minor injuries. He married Elizabeth Macheka in 2012, a year after Locardia Karimatsenga Tembo, a businesswoman and sister of a Zanu-PF MP, claimed that he had married her in a traditional ceremony. There were reports of other girlfriends and of at least one love child.

By 2013 the world had wearied of Zimbabwe’s seemingly endless troubles. Zanu-PF was able to rig that year’s elections with little international outcry and the country returned to one-party rule. Although Tsvangirai remained Zimbabwe’s most popular politician, he was past his peak.

The MDC soon split for a second time after his bitter falling-out with Tendai Biti, the party’s secretary- general. Having become fond of the trappings of power, Tsvangirai continued to live in the luxurious government house that he had occupied as prime minister. He even allowed the Mugabe regime to finance some of his treatment in South Africa for the colon cancer that eventually killed him.

In the end, it was not Tsvangirai who toppled Mugabe, but Emmerson Mnangagwa, the dictator’s loyal henchman for the previous 37 years, who declined to form another national unity government. Tsvangirai’s last chance to lead his country away from the darkness of the Mugabe era had gone.

Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwean politician, was born on March 10, 1952. He died of colon cancer on February 14, 2018, aged 65