OBITUARY: Morgan Tsvangirai, the ‘nearly man’ of Zimbabwe

OBITUARY: Morgan Tsvangirai, the ‘nearly man’ of Zimbabwe
 Morgan Tsvangirai. Picture: AFRICA EDITION

Morgan Tsvangirai

A powerful orator from humble beginnings, Morgan Tsvangirai was arguably Zimbabwe’s most popular politician and came within a whisker of unseating Robert Mugabe only to be outmanoeuvred and ultimately outlived by his long-time nemesis.

At the peak of his career, the self-taught son of a brick-layer served as prime minister to Mugabe’s president in a 2009-2013 unity government cobbled together after a disputed and violent election in which scores of his supporters were killed.

His presence helped stabilise an economy in freefall but Mugabe reneged on pledges to overhaul the former British colony’s partisan security forces and Tsvangirai was shunted back into his familiar role as opposition gadfly.

A hefty electoral defeat in 2013, blamed in part on Tsvangirai’s involvement in two sex scandals, put paid to his dreams of one day leading the southern African nation and three years later he revealed he was being treated for colon cancer.

He died on Wednesday aged 65, after 18 months of treatment in neighbouring South Africa.

Despite their rivalry, 93-year-old Mugabe harboured grudging respect for an opponent who suffered multiple abuses at the hands of security forces, including a police beating in 2007 that left him with deep gashes in his head.

During their time in power together, the two men developed an uneasy working relationship, squabbling frequently but also taking afternoon tea every Monday and even joking about their frequent head-butting.

“I’ve got my fair share of criticisms and also dealt back rights and lefts and upper cuts. But that’s the game,” Mugabe said on the eve of the 2013 vote, mimicking the movements of a boxer.

“Although we boxed each other, it’s not as hostile as before. It’s all over now. We can shake hands.”

In the coalition’s early days, Tsvangirai even said he found Mugabe to be “very accommodative, very charming”.


As a young man, Tsvangirai worked in a rural mine to support his family – he had six children with his first wife, Susan – and cut his political teeth in the labour movement as a mine foreman.

In 1988, he became full-time secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which broke ranks under his leadership with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, a bold step less than a decade after independence.

Tsvangirai led paralysing strikes against tax increases in 1997 and twice forced Mugabe to withdraw announced hikes, a rare setback for the former guerrilla leader who enjoyed almost total political control of Zimbabwe.

Buoyed by his union successes, Tsvangirai helped found the labour-backed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999 and quickly became Zimbabwe’s most visible opposition figure, harnessing the frustrations of urban workers bearing the brunt of a struggling economy.

In February 2000, the MDC engineered Mugabe’s first poll defeat – the rejection in a national referendum of a draft constitution that would have entrenched his presidential powers.

That June, the MDC endured killings and police intimidation to stun ZANU-PF by winning 57 of the 120 seats in parliament after Tsvangirai captivated the public with his combative and compelling pro-poor rhetoric.

As he would do on two other occasions, Tsvangirai claimed to have been cheated by a mixture of cunning and violence meted out by Mugabe, who ruled for 37 years until forced to step down after a de facto coup in November 2017.

In March 2008, he came closest to unseating Mugabe.

Still bearing the scars of his treatment by police – an outrage that bolstered his popularity – Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in a first round vote but was forced to pull out of a run-off due to a campaign of violence against his supporters.

MDC-T leader, Morgan Tsvangirai

MDC-T leader, Morgan Tsvangirai


His undoubted personal courage and political obduracy earned him plaudits in the West, with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard likening him in 2012 to pro-democracy figureheads such as South Africa’s Nelson Mandela or Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

Those who knew him better described a headstrong man ill-equipped to take on a figure as entrenched and ruthless as Mugabe.

“Tsvangirai is a flawed figure, not readily open to advice, indecisive and with questionable judgment,” former U.S. ambassador Christopher Dell said in a diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks in 2009.

“He is an indispensable element for opposition success… but possibly an albatross around their necks once in power.”

Dell’s misgivings proved correct when, in 2013, voters failed to credit Tsvangirai with Zimbabwe’s economic turn-around under the coalition government and handed him his biggest electoral defeat.

Tsvangirai, whose colourful love life had been laid bare in Zimbabwe’s tabloids and the courts over the previous two years, dismissed the result as “monumental fraud”.

After the defeat, the MDC split for the second time in less than a decade as loyalists led by former finance minister Tendai Biti laid the blame squarely at his door. As age and illness crept up, Tsvangirai never had a chance to prove him wrong. – Reuters

Editing by Ed Cropley and Andrew Heavens

  • kwv

    A sad day. I knew and respected Morgan right from the start of forming the MDC. He won the 2008 elections, we know. And the 2013 “erections” were a sham, as we know

    • gutter poet

      2002 is when the seed of the defeat of one Robert Mugabe was planted. 2008 was only confirmation of the REALITY that was 2002 !!! Robert Mugabe never won an election after 2002 or thereabouts..and it is such a CRYING shame!!! If anything the MDCT won the 2 000 parliamentary polls…No?

  • Matsimba

    Morgan Tsvangirai’s struggle to remove Mugabe and ZANU PF was actually a struggle of Africans to carve out a democratic space and build resilient democratic institutions in the face of great danger to his life, family and colleagues. He fought a good fight and and we are grateful to to him, his party and members, many of them were clobbered to death, and fortunate ones lost limbs. The fight for democratization of Zimbabwean political landscape took lives of even toddlers, and in that regard we remember with great sadness the tragic death of Christpowers Maisiri, in this very month, five years ago, burnt to death by militias from the ruling party. It is therefore a great myth that the concept of democracy and republicanism has worked in Africa. The whole continent is stinking with despots, some worse than others but still despots. Transition of power is a big headache across the continent, as incumbents, fearing for long jail terms, or desire to entrench family ruling dynasties, or even just to enjoy powers of gods (ruling and having dominion over men) refuse to relinquish power voluntarily. Today the passing on of Morgan Tsvangirai reminds us of the political journey traveled thus far, from the days of Joshua Nkomo, Tom Mboya, Josiah Mwagi Kariuki, Robert Ouki and others against oiled post colonial dictatorships. Tsvangirai had the courage of Etienne Tshisekedi, who confronted literally a leopard, in the from of Mobutu Sese Seko. They fought until they breathed their last foreign lands, carrying the hopes and aspirations of the Congolese and Zimbabwean people. Morgan and other African opposition luminaries like Raila Odinga, Kizza Besigye, Hakaine Hichilema, Julius Malema and others follow in the footsteps of the father of African opposition politics, the former vice president of Kenya, Oginga Odinga who famously said, “It’s not yet Uhuru” realizing that post colonial governments were oppressing the people and freedom was yet to be realized. As we lay to rest this gallant son of the soil, we look forward with hope that the struggle of democratization of Africa continues. The young generation should follow his legacy and carry the torch for the total emancipation of Africa, such that never again would it be that in this beautiful continent there shall be domination of one people, tribe, region, clan, creed, against another – the saying of the father of African democracy- Nelson Mandela.

    • gutter poet

      Christpowers Maisiri is simple cruel proof that sometimes you will run to STOP like old Didymus Mutasa who was/ or was not involved in this young disabled man’s death..Wow!!! …and if I may indulge me self..the young fellow in death blocked the upward path for Mr. Mutasa like no other (jolly good),!!! Imi wee !!!

  • George Morgan

    The people’s hero has fallen. We will carry the struggle for you. They might think they have silenced you, but can bet you they will also go the same way or even worse. November 15 we saw the signs. Those left will depart in a more miserable way. God is for us all.

  • gutter poet

    ?????? ????

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