“Come hell; come storm; come rains; come fire: please just go ahead and do things as we resolved here. Do not look back.” These words were said to Morgan Tsvangirai by his trade union colleague, Timothy Kondo, in 1999 when civic leaders decided to found the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The new party was to challenge Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF’s nineteen-year rule of Zimbabwe, which by then had begun an unpopular program of economic liberalization and had a history of violently crushing its rivals.
If Kondo’s words were meant to rally Tsvangirai and the new party’s followers, they also foretold the MDC’s rise and struggle against a brutal, 13-year campaign of violence waged by ZANU-PF that marshaled the architecture of the state and its considerable party apparatus to retain its hold on power.
During these years of struggle, Morgan Tsvangirai was the charismatic leader of the MDC. More recently, he was plagued by ill-health and had to watch as the party’s influence wane after the 2013 election, which ZANU(PF) won. In 2016, opposition politics was unpopular and seemed to have been eclipsed by a hashtag movement, #ThisFlag. By the end of last year, Mugabe was pushed out of power by the military because of internal conflict over succession within ZANU-PF. Since Emmerson Mnangagwa took over as the country’s President, Tsvangirai made some brief, intermittent, appearances at MDC rallies with an eye on the 2018 elections. Last Wednesday, Tsvangirai died of colon cancer in South Africa at the age of 65.
These more recent events should not eclipse the magnitude of Tsvangirai and the MDC’s achievements. During the 2000s, he and other MDC party leaders, activists and supporters were labelled Western-sponsored “sell-outs” and traitors by ZANU-PF leaders and faced arbitrary arrests, torture, beatings and assassination attempts at the hands of state security services and ZANU-PF-aligned militias. Tsvangirai was a central target in these campaigns. He was imprisoned and charged with treason twice, in 2000 and 2002, and in 2007 he was arrested and tortured in a military barracks that led to his hospitalization in intensive care. (Mugabe later bragged of this last event at a party rally in 2007, saying that Tsvangirai ‘deserved it… I told the police to beat him.’)
Despite ZANU-PF’s brutal campaigns, the Tsvangirai-led MDC remained a sustained electoral threat throughout the 2000s. Winning 57 of the 120 parliamentary seats in the first election that it contested in 2000, the party went on to challenge ZANU-PF as the party of government and Mugabe as the nation’s president in five elections. In 2008, Tsvangirai won the first round of a presidential election by a margin much wider than the official results claimed. The suspected official result forced a presidential run-off in which ZANU-PF unleashed its most brutal campaign of violence against the opposition and anyone perceived to be supporting it, forcing Tsvangirai to withdraw from the election and flee to neighboring Botswana. The outcome of this crisis was a deal mediated by then-South African president, Thabo Mbeki, which brought the MDC into a power-sharing government with ZANU-PF. Tsvangirai was made Prime Minister and Mugabe stayed on as President. The limited gains of its time in government caused disillusionment in the MDC and in the 2013 elections ZANU-PF won a clear victory.
As a political leader, Tsvangirai had a rare gift in Zimbabwean politics: the common touch. Unlike Mugabe, who was said to visit rural farms wearing a three-piece suit and whose favorite sport was cricket, Tsvangirai shunned these markers of social distinction. His politics instead emerged from his years of trade unionist organizing where he enjoyed listening to peoples’ concerns over ‘an after-word drink and a cigarette.’ Having grown up in rural Buhera in the south of the country, Tsvangirai spent much of the war of liberation working in textiles and then mining in Mutare and Bindura. After independence in 1980, he continued his union organizing and became the full-time Secretary General of the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) in 1988.
Unlike nationalist leaders that rested on their liberation war credentials and academic achievements as their justifications for political leadership, Tsvangirai’s legitimacy was born out of his trusted representation of workers’ interests and the charismatic force of his personality. In his ZCTU role, he gained his first personal experience of the repressive features of ZANU-PF’s rule. In 1989, after student leaders at the University of Zimbabwe were imprisoned for leading demonstrations against ZANU-PF’s attempts to institute a one-party state, Tsvangirai wrote a public letter in support of the students. The state’s response was to imprison him without charge for six weeks, after which he was charged with treason (which was later dropped). This ability to endure state repression enhanced Tsvangirai’s man-of-the-people legitimacy. The event also marked the beginning of a confrontational relationship between Tsvangirai and Mugabe, which would deepen in the late 1990s as the country’s economy declined under ZANU(PF)’s structural adjustment policies and ZCTU took a leading role organizing mass demonstrations and worker stay-aways. In this moment of heightened unrest, Tsvangirai’s ability to bring groups together became evident. In 1997, a grouping of civil society organizations and professional individuals, many of whom were lawyers, formed the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) which sought to press the government into reforming the constitution, with Tsvangirai as its chairman. Out of the NCA’s activities, the idea of forming a party to challenge ZANU-PF gained quick momentum amongst many of the coalition. Tsvangirai and his inclusive style of leadership, his common touch and proven endurance became its obvious leader.
Yet, Tsvangirai’s ‘big tent’ politics brought with its own challenges. In attempting to unite a disparate group of trade unionists, civic society professionals and white farming capital, the party struggled to consolidate any extensive ideological platform beyond the cause of removing ZANU-PF from office and a commitment to vague notions of ‘democracy’. Under the extreme pressures of challenging ZANU-PF in the 2000s, Tsvangirai became increasingly controlling over party process and violent internal party rivalries emerged within the party. In 2005, the party split after the party’s Secretary General, the law professor Welshman Ncube, attacked Tsvangirai for overriding a decision of the National Executive to run in the 2005 Senate elections. The ‘big tent’ coalition split even further after the party chose to go into government with ZANU-PF in 2008. Whilst the unity government did manage to get a new constitution passed, much of the party’s support base that had believed Tsvangirai would come good on the slogan ‘Mugabe Must Go!’ became disillusioned with the party. A disastrous political campaign in 2013 saw the party thrown out of government, and it split again as many of its key figures, such as Tendai Biti and Elton Mangoma, blamed Tsvangirai’s authoritarian style of leadership for their electoral losses.
With the MDC marginalised and splintering, between 2013 and 2017 Zimbabwean politics was dominated by ZANU-PF’s internal battles over Mugabe’s succession. Throughout this time Tsvangirai maintained that he was the man who could lead an effective opposition, and from 2015 began to reach out and form a complex coalition of opposition parties – what became known as the ‘MDC Alliance’ – which included Biti and Ncube. For a moment, it looked as if the 2018 election would be another Tsvangirai-Mugabe choice. However, with the military’s removal of Mugabe last November and Tsvangirai’s passing last week, in the election this year we will have two electorally untested presidential candidates. The favorite to face Mnangagwa for the presidency is the MDC’s ambitious young Vice-President, Nelson Chamisa, who controversially seized his opportunity over the weekend to have himself named as the party’s interim leader, over its Deputy-President, Thokozani Khupe. After cutting his teeth in student politics at Harare Polytechnic in the late 1990s, Chamisa rose through the party as a ruthlessly ambitious and charismatic leader who performs an evangelical preacher-style politics. His rise even earned the praise from former President Mugabe as being ‘a very charismatic young man.’ As such, he represents a formidable if untested political threat to the equally untested Mnangagwa presidency, which has the benefits of a well-funded, disciplined party machinery that has been able to control the rural vote. (Unlike in South Africa, rural votes alone can win elections in Zimbabwe). Whilst Tsvangirai’s name and memory will feature prominently in the MDC’s election strategy, a Chamisa-led party is a different proposition to Tsvangirai and the trade unionist-inspired politics that he represented. Tsvangirai was a man of the people, despite his faults, and he will be missed in all corners of Zimbabwe’s opposition politics.