Friday 14 December 2018

Obituary: Morgan Tsvangirai

Leader of the Zimbabwean opposition who challenged the corrupt autocratic one-party regime of Robert Mugabe

STRUGGLE: Morgan Tsvangirai suffered imprisonment, beatings and attempted assassinations
STRUGGLE: Morgan Tsvangirai suffered imprisonment, beatings and attempted assassinations

Morgan Tsvangirai, who died last Wednesday aged 65, was leader of the Zimbabwean Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a political party composed of organisations opposed to the corrupt and autocratic one-party rule of President Robert Mugabe.

After a turbulent decade in which he was imprisoned, beaten and the victim of assassination attempts, Tsvangirai advanced to the threshold of power after the MDC won the elections held in March 2008. Having failed to achieve a large enough majority to avoid a second round of voting, however, the party boycotted the run-off after its supporters were subjected to brutal attacks and intimidation.

Mugabe was returned unopposed, but the parlous state of the economy, and widespread international condemnation, forced the president, in September 2008, to enter into a power-sharing agreement with his opponents. It was agreed that Tsvangirai would head a council of ministers responsible for the day-to-day running of the country, while the president would chair a cabinet of the same personnel to decide on policy.

The haggling over who would assume which particular political posts dragged on for months until, on February 11, 2009, Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister. His had been a high-risk strategy, and many - in his own party and elsewhere - believed that he could have little effect so long as Mugabe remained in power and that compromise had been the wrong path to take. In any event, the so-called unity government and Tsvangirai's period in office held on until the Zimbabwean presidential and parliamentary elections of 2013 in which Mugabe was re-elected as president and the office of prime minister was abolished by a new constitution.

Tsvangirai challenged Mugabe for the presidency, but despite being regarded as the favourite to win, lost in a landslide. International observers questioned the legitimacy of the vote and some blamed Tsvangirai himself on the grounds that, as prime minister, he should have been able to prevent electoral fraud.

The eldest of nine children of a bricklayer, Morgan Tsvangirai was born on March 10, 1952 at Gutu, Masvingo, a poor and arid part of what was then Southern Rhodesia. He attended Munyira primary school and then Silveira and Gokomere high schools. His father died while his son was in his teens, and despite being bright, Morgan had to leave school early, before completing his exams to support his brothers and sisters.

Despite his later achievements, Tsvangirai's lack of education would often be picked on by Mugabe, who made a number of snobbish attacks on his opponent's poverty-ridden start in life, even suggesting that some are destined in life to drive trains and be foremen while others are destined to lead.

Tsvangirai never fought in the bush war against Ian Smith, the leader of white minority government of Rhodesia. Ironically, during the early 1970s, he even benefited from the departure of young white men to fight against Mugabe, then launching guerrilla attacks from neighbouring Mozambique.

The absence of whites opened up unprecedented job opportunities for young blacks. Tsvangirai spent the 1970s working for Mutare Clothing, a textile company. Two years later, he joined the Trojan Nickel Mine in Bindura and, as a Zanu-PF member, became a political commissar at the mine.

He spent 10 years there, rising from plant operator to general foreman. But as he climbed the trades union ladder, he abandoned politics to concentrate on the labour movement. He became branch chairman of the Associated Mine Workers' Union and was later elected into the executive of the National Mine Workers' Union before becoming Secretary-General of the Zimbabwean Congress of Trades Unions ZCTU in 1988.

Set up on independence in 1980, the ZCTU had been little more than an extension of the ruling party. In 1989, however, he persuaded the unions to cut ties with Zanu-PF, turning it into the main focus of popular discontent with Zanu-PF rule. As a result he became "Bob's enemy number one", depicted by the regime as a puppet of Zimbabwe's former white rulers, bent on undermining a black majority government.

To his supporters - and no doubt to the silent majority of Zimbabweans - he was "Moses" Tsvangirai, the man who would lead his people to the promised land. By refusing to be intimidated, he was a beacon of hope of an alternative to corruption and the abuse of power.

It took real courage to challenge Mugabe and the thousands of corrupt cronies who surrounded him. In 1989 Tsvangirai spent six weeks in prison on trumped-up charges of being a South African spy.

Mugabe made much of Tsvangirai's lack of liberation credentials which, in the first decade of independence, had been a prerequisite for political life. But during the 1990s Tsvangirai was able to turn his non-participation to his advantage. In the eyes of a new generation of people too young to remember the bush war, it meant that Tsvangirai was untainted by the corruption that poisoned the war veteran generation.

Tsvangirai emerged into the political limelight in 1997 when he led a series of national strikes - the first in Zimbabwe's history - in protest at rocketing food prices, hyperinflation and tax increases. He received numerous death threats, and in December, shortly after the first national strike, was attacked in his office in Harare and beaten unconscious by seven men, later identified as members of Zanu-PF who were only prevented from tipping him out of a 10th floor window by the unexpected return of a secretary.

In 1998, he was instrumental in forming the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a coalition of church groups, unions, human rights groups and other civic organisations that pressed Mugabe to draw up a new democratic constitution. Instead Mugabe created his own draft constitution to entrench his powers, and put it to a referendum in 2000. Tsvangirai assumed that the vote would be rigged and hardly bothered to campaign, concentrating his resources on what he believed would be the real battle - the parliamentary elections to be held later the same year.

In January 2000, Tsvangirai became president of the newly-formed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the unexpected defeat of Mugabe's draft constitution in the referendum held the same month - the first ever defeat for Mugabe in a public vote - was seen as a political triumph for the newly formed opposition group, but it made Mugabe doubly determined not to be beaten a second time.

From then on until the election, the president backed a campaign of violence and intimidation against white landowners, black farm workers and opposition members. Thirty-seven people were killed. Despite the intimidation, Tsvangirai refused to boycott the elections and hand victory to his opponent.

Tsvangirai's greatest asset was his common touch. His simple lifestyle went down well in a country sick of the corruption and ostentation of Mugabe and his circle.

His modest house in a middle-class area of Harare, his crumpled off-the-peg clothes and battered Mazda were in striking contrast to Mugabe's palaces, Savile Row suits and cavalcade-accompanied rallies. His straight-talking, humorous style also won the support of people fed up with Mugabe's Marxist bile.

During the election campaign, in speeches to his supporters Tsvangirai promised that an MDC-led government would establish a truth and justice commission to investigate human rights abuses and corruption during the Mugabe era. He also appealed to whites and blacks who had left the country since independence to return. In the event, MDC supporters withstood an unprecedented campaign of murder and intimidation by roving bands of machete-wielding Zanu-PF "war veterans" to win 57 of the constituency-based seats against 62 held by the ruling Zanu-PF. Tsvangirai himself was not elected. He had turned down the opportunity of a seat in one of the cities and chose instead to stand in his home district - which, like most rural constituencies, was won by Zanu-PF.

Yet the elections secured the position of the MDC as the main opposition to Zanu-PF and ended the virtual monopoly that the ruling party had enjoyed since 1980. Afterwards, Tsvangirai continued to attempt to maintain popularity and political momentum by declaring his intention of standing against Mugabe in the 2002 presidential elections. Tsvangirai ran Mugabe close and probably as a result was charged with plotting to assassinate the president.

He was acquitted by a court in Harare two years later. In 2005, Mugabe won an overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections; the MDC maintained that the ballot was rigged, but in the same year dissatisfaction with Tsvangirai's leadership saw the party split - an event that seriously inhibited its ability to remove Mugabe from power.

Tsvangirai continued as leader, however, and in 2007 he was arrested at an anti-Mugabe rally. He claimed that he had been beaten up at a police station, and television pictures broadcast around the world clearly showed the marks of such treatment, causing international outrage. Mugabe said at the time that he "deserved" the beating for disobeying police orders. If anything, this served to strengthen Tsvangirai's position as leader of the MDC.

But the co-opting of Tsvangirai as a partner in the unity government the following year proved awkward. Although key economic reforms were rolled out, Tsvangirai came under fire for his perceived failure to reform the country's bastions of real power - the military, the police and the courts - where Zanu-PF still retained control.

In 2016, Tsvangirai announced that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer, for which he was receiving treatment in South Africa. In November last year, as Zimbabwe's military put Mugabe under house arrest, he flew in to Harare, reportedly to take part in negotiations over the country's future.

Morgan Tsvangirai married, in 1978, Susan Nyaradso, with whom he had six children. In later years his image was also tarnished by a complicated personal life following her death in a 2009 car crash in which he himself was injured. In 2012, two women went to court to try to block his marriage to Elizabeth Macheka.

The court found he had already wed one of them in a traditional ceremony, so he was obliged to marry Elizabeth Macheka in a "customary" union which recognises polygamy. The fact that all three women had close family links to the Zanu-PF party (Elizabeth's father Joseph Macheka is a member of Zanu-PF's central committee), prompted suggestions that he had been the victim of dirty tricks.

© Telegraph

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