MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who died in South Africa on Wednesday after battling colon cancer, joined politics at a time when heavyweights that had challenged former president Robert Mugabe in the past had failed.
Editor’s Memo,Faith Zaba
After failed attempts to dislodge Mugabe by political luminaries who included former Zanu leader Ndabaningi Sithole, PF-Zapu leader and late vice-president Joshua Nkomo and Zimbabwe Unity Movement president Edgar Tekere, there emerged a political nonentity to stage the biggest challenge Mugabe had ever faced in post-independence Zimbabwe.
Right from the beginning, the charismatic Tsvangirai, whose background was that of trade unionism, showed courage.
I recall when Mugabe mocked Tsvangirai and his party deputy Gibson Sibanda, describing them as greenhorns who knew nothing about politics.
But Tsvangirai showed great mobilisation skills. He had the bravery to confront what certainly was a fierce and ruthless political operator in the form of Mugabe, who had accumulated imperial power and had consolidated it over a period of two decades.
As part of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), Tsvangirai mobilised people and led a broad constitutional movement which demanded constitutional reform that culminated in Mugabe setting up a constitutional commission to draft a new constitution.
When Mugabe refused to make meaningful concessions in the constitution-making process, Tsvangirai led a broad movement to oppose the draft constitution which allowed Mugabe to run only for two terms.
He defeated a government-led process, working together with NCA and the MDC, which had been formed in February 1999.
Tsvangirai immediately hit the ground running. In his first attempt he almost swept Zanu PF out of power by winning 57 of the electable 120 seats. During that time he braved violence, which was to be the political norm until 2008 – the burning down of property and the assault of opposition supporters.
In 2002, with only two years’ experience, he almost defeated Mugabe. He only lost because his supporters were prevented from voting through a systematic manipulation of the process. Mugabe had reduced the number of polling stations in urban areas, his party’s stronghold. The victory was incredible because Tsvangirai won in almost all urban areas and confined Mugabe and Zanu PF to rural areas. Tsvangirai put up a good fight even in 2005, amid violence and intimidation. However, it was in 2008 when he put up his biggest political fight. He clearly defeated Mugabe in the first round of elections with 47,9% to 43,2% of the total vote. He however failed to garner the 50% plus one vote required then by the constitution to take the presidency.
However, there is an untold story that Tsvangirai had actually won a clear victory but was denied through manipulation.
Mugabe made a “Freudian slip” in 2014 when he said Tsvangirai had garnered 73% of the vote. Zanu PF launched a campaign of brutality during the runoff election period as Tsvangirai fled the country to Botswana. Tsvangirai was severely beaten twice and three times charged with treason.
He was then co-opted into government in 2009 as the country’s prime minister under pressure from then South African president Thabo Mbeki. This was the beginning of his decline. Tsvangrai was then contained from within. Mugabe gave him the Highlands mansion, which was bought and renovated at a total cost of over US$3 million. He also received millions of United States dollars.
From that time it was downhill for Tsvangirai and his MDC-T party. A combination of losing political ground through a number of splits in his party, sex scandals and health problems marked his decline. MDC-T split twice in 2005 and 2014. The first split was over whether to contest the senate election and the other over Tsvangirai’s succession. In addition, during the unity government he started listening more to Mugabe than his party. Tsvangirai also made grave mistakes. His biggest failures were not making critical decisions, one of which was dealing with his succession and not stopping the splits, which saw the party losing key members who included Welshman Ncube, Tendai Biti, Elton Mangoma and Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga.
Tsvangirai eventually lost his battle to cancer this week at Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg.
The biggest lesson in all this is that Tsvangirai made a huge contribution to Zimbabwe’s democracy at great personal sacrifice. He bravely challenged Mugabe’s stranglehold on power. In many ways he secured the democratic space which today Zimbabweans in general are enjoying. I will conclude with a quote from him: “Legitimacy does not come from outside. It comes from the people of Zimbabwe.”