Charismatic, courageous Zimbabwean political leader who challenged Mugabe

Obituary: Morgan Tsvangirai fought for a better, more democratic country

Morgan Tsvangirai: Robert Mugabe’s only serious rival for two decades. Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty

Morgan Tsvangirai: Robert Mugabe’s only serious rival for two decades. Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty


Morgan Richard Tsvangirai
Born: March 10th, 1952
February 14th, 2018

With the death of Morgan Tsvangirai, at the age of 65, from cancer, Zimbabwe has lost a man of conspicuous courage. He took the country’s political scene by storm, becoming President Robert Mugabe’s only serious rival for the better part of two decades, and campaigned until the end for a better country with greater democracy and transparency.

Tsvangirai became prime minister of Zimbabwe in September 2008 as part of a power-sharing agreement with Mugabe. He was sworn in the following year, and remained in office until 2013, but the path to get there had been long and vexed.

Tsvangirai’s decision to help found, and then lead, the Movement for Democratic Change in 1999 decisively tilted the political struggle in Zimbabwe from one between civil society and government to one that was based on a contest between political parties. He was arrested in both 2000 and 2003 on unsuccessful treason charges and, in 2007, was badly beaten while in custody. Even his bitterest enemies and detractors acknowledged his courage and determination.

Tsvangirai was beaten by Mugabe’s thugs, most spectacularly when assailants tried to throw him out of a skyscraper window

Born in Gutu, in the southeastern province of Masvingo, Tsvangirai grew up in a poor family, one of nine children of Chibwe, a bricklayer, and his wife, Lydia, and never attained the educational qualifications required for university study. Much later, when already in political life, he attended Harvard’s Kennedy school programme for executive leadership, and tried to make up for his lack of extended education by assiduous reading.

Mugabe had been a hero, but when Tsvangirai began his career as a union official he began disputing Mugabe’s decision to implement economic structural-adjustment programmes that badly affected his members. He was beaten by Mugabe’s thugs at this time, most spectacularly in 1997 when assailants tried to throw him out of a skyscraper window. But they failed to intimidate him, and by the second half of the 1990s he had become a formidable opponent of Mugabe.

Tsvangirai played a leading part in the formation of the National Constitutional Assembly and was its chair in 1997-98. This was a convention of the major civil-society groups in Zimbabwe, which fought for constitutional liberalism. Its rapid growth and capacity shook Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, and Mugabe lost a referendum on constitutional reform in 2000 because of Movement for Democratic Change opposition. His response was to invade farms held by white landowners, with devastating results for the economy.

Mugabe rigged the 2002 presidential election to deny Tsvangirai victory. But it was the intensity of events surrounding the two electoral rounds in 2008 that saw crisis, stalemate and, finally, a compromise breakthrough in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe and Zanu-PF had been certain they would win, and the extent of support for the Movement for Democratic Change surprised even Tsvangirai. Most objective commentators agreed that he won enough votes to become president, but the protracted process of counting allowed the government to ensure sufficient scaling down of the figures to force a run-off. The build-up to it was one of greatly increased state violence, forcing Tsvangirai to withdraw and allowing Mugabe to claim victory.

That “victory” convinced no one, and even the previously tolerant presidents in other southern African countries began turning against Mugabe. Against this backdrop the mediation of the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, led finally to the sort of compromise achieved at the beginning of 2008 in Kenya, with a murky share of the spoils between both a president and a prime minister.

President and prime minister: Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai in 2013. Photograph: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty
President and prime minister: Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai in 2013. Photograph: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP

He became the prime minister in an uneasy coalition.The core triumph of his party’s role in government was the stabilisation of an economy hit by mega-inflation. Subject to the president, Tsvangirai’s scope as prime minister for radical change was limited.

Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change entered the 2013 elections with bravado but without assurances of a level playing field. As it was, his lacklustre performance as prime minister probably acted against him as much as any electoral irregularities benefited Zanu-PF.

Having resumed his role as leader of the opposition in 2013, Tsvangirai was unable or unwilling to prevent splits within his party – which, weakened, was therefore not the standard-bearer of revolt against Mugabe. When, finally, Mugabe’s ambitious wife, Grace, engineered the overthrow of Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, it was the army, with support from a broad cross-section of Zanu-PF, that finally removed Mugabe from office.

By this stage Tsvangirai was clearly suffering from cancer. He did not move to appoint, nominate or even suggest a successor, so a divided opposition – even one seeking to plaster over its cracks – will contest the 2018 elections. And it will be one without the charisma Tsvangirai never lost. His immense courage as the first opposition leader of stature in Zimbabwean history will be forever a testament to him. His accomplishments as a beleaguered prime minister will not.

Tsvangirai is survived by the six children he had with his first wife, Susan, whom he married in 1978. He formally married Elizabeth Macheka in 2012 and is survived by her. – Guardian