When Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party won the elections in 1980, it was a brand new epoch for Zimbabwe that ushered a new wave of hope. With his prolonged stay in power, the masses were becoming disillusioned, especially with his liberation war rhetoric while the economy was on a free-fall being mismanaged and the loyal servants of Zimbabwe wallowed in increasing poverty. But they were gripped with a fear that was very reprehensible, and no one could speak out against this malaise.
The entrance of Morgan Tsvangirai on the political scene was what everyone had yearned for. When everyone could not muster the courage to face the evil regime of Robert Mugabe head-on, Morgan Tsvangirai stepped in. With his pro-poor and pro-worker vision, he started what no one could have done at that moment. He was the right man at the right time. Zimbabweans received the sad news of his death with overwhelming incredulity, finding it hard to stomach the news. Cancer won, and Zimbabwe lost Morgan Tsvangirai, who had become “the face of the struggle” as the leader of the opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change.
Tsvangirai was a man of humble beginnings. Morgan Richard Tsvangirai was born in 1952 in the Gutu area of Southern Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was known at that time). He was the eldest child out of nine, his father being a carpenter. Tsvangirai did not acquire formal education for university studies so he left school to become a textile weaver. He then went on to work in a mine in Bindura, 50 miles north-east of Harare. His interest and involvement in union activities saw him being elected to the executive of the National Mine Workers Union.
Before Robert Mugabe became his arch nemesis, he had been a hero for Morgan Tsvangirai. When Zimbabwe attained independence, Tsvangirai joined ZANU-PF and rose to high ranks. But his role as a trade unionist were to design the deterioration in his relation with the party. He was vice president of the Associated Mine Workers Union in the late 1980s, and from 1988 to 2000 was the secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which is the umbrella body for trade unions in Zimbabwe. With all the plight of the workers at heart, he began disputing Mugabe’s decision to implement economic structural adjustment programs which would badly affect the working class.
The ZCTU began breaking its close ties with ZANU-PF under the leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai. It was uncharacteristic, but it had to happen. In December 1997 and early 1998, he led a series of strikes, known as "stayaways", against tax increases, which brought the country to a standstill. These forced Mugabe's government to cancel two tax rises and to abandon a promised tax to help fund war veterans' pensions.
Responding with the typical heavy-handedness of a repressive regime, they tried to silence him. Assailants tried to throw him out of a skyscraper window. Having failed to intimidate him, and being buoyed and galvanized by the his successes as a fierce, militant trade unionist with a burning vision, he formed the political party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). It was open to everyone, in stark contrast to the exclusionary antics of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. It attracted a younger generation of Zimbabweans, particularly the urban working class and students. Having been torn by the struggling economy, the MDC attracted mammoth support and became the most vibrant political outfit in the country. The rhetoric of Mugabe’s liberation war did not matter.
In February 2000, the MDC orchestrated the first electoral defeat for ZANU-PF when the nation rejected the draft constitution that would have further entrenched the powers of Robert Mugabe, through a national referendum. In June of that same year, ZANU-PF’s stranglehold on power came under serious threat, and in fact, was crumbling, when the MDC stoically endured beatings and killings to gain 57 of the constituency-based seats, against 62 held by Zanu-PF. It was massive, ZANU had never tasted electoral defeat of this magnitude. An unprecedented result that prompted ZANU-PF to revert to their unorthodox ways of staying in power.
As Mugabe’s popularity was in the wane, Tsvangirai’s popularity was soaring. He became a star among Zimbabweans, an embodiment of hope and change. He became a darling of the West. Mugabe continually accused Tsvangirai of being a puppet of the West, a front-man for a return of colonialism. He even hurled derogatory names to him, but Tsvangirai, filled with sheer determination, was becoming the Moses of Zimbabwe. With the sinister machinations in full swing, Tsvangirai was defeated in the 2002 presidential elections. Tsvangirai was on the cusp of being Zimbabwe’s president in 2008.
2008 is one of those years which evoke painful memories among the psyche of Zimbabweans. Even though his party was reeling from splits and in-fighting, he still remained the popular politician in Zimbabwe. The results of the 2008 presidential elections were held for six weeks, in which they were being altered. Although official figures state that Morgan Tsvangirai got 47% of the vote and Mugabe 43%, many believe the figures for Tsvangirai were much higher. Having failed to secure the majority vote, a runoff was called. But it was bloodshed. It was marked with beatings, abductions, tortures and killings. An estimated 200 supporters of MDC were killed. In order to save lives, Tsvangirai pulled out of the contest leaving Mugabe in a one-man contest.
The victory was a sham, it convinced no one. Negotiations were hammered out leading to a compromise in power. A deal where Mugabe would surrender day-to-day control of the government was agreed. In February 2009, Tsvangirai was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. He had the onerous task of fixing a completely broken economy plagued by mega-inflation. He turned things around and brought stability to the economy of Zimbabwe. But it was from 2009-2013 that many feel Tsvangirai missed a golden opportunity for more reforms. Circumstances were seemingly beyond his control. He was subject to the whims of Robert Mugabe. He was out-manouevered and out-witted by a wily Robert Mugabe who was arrogant and was only concerned with his interests.
In what was supposed to be an equal partnership, Tsvangirai failed to stand up to Robert Mugabe. As a result, his party lost heavily in 2013 elections. The MDC was now weakened. In 2016, he made public his illness. But as the cancer ravaged him, he kept fighting on spiritedly. In November 2017, he got to see the downfall of Robert Mugabe as the veteran leader was elbowed out of power through a military intervention.
Morgan Tsvangirai bore it all. He faced it all. He sacrificed his whole adult life to fight the Mugabe regime. He lost many things along the way, but his vision never dies. He was a towering figure in Zimbabwean politics. He shaped the struggle for democracy. He ultimately made the mistake of failing to carve out a succession plan for his party, but it is hoped his party will act accordingly and fulfill his vision and mission. A man who was charged three times with treason, severely beaten in 2007 at a special barracks and had his skull fractured, a man who put the interests of the people ahead of his.
Zimbabwe has indeed suffered a huge loss. Tsvangirai was a compelling orator with unquenchable zest, but lacked the cunning nature of Robert Mugabe. Despite all this, he gave everything to the fight for democracy. In the end, at least, he saw the downfall of the man he had fought so hard.