Tsvangirai Leaves an Important Political Legacy in Southern Africa

Supporters hold up a poster of Morgan Tsvangirai during a memorial service in Harare. Photo: Getty Images.
Supporters hold up a poster of Morgan Tsvangirai during a memorial service in Harare. Photo: Getty Images.

The death of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai is a loss for Zimbabwe. In nearly three decades of speaking truth to power, Tsvangirai helped to change his nation and the region.

Southern Africa's new politics

His death marks a period of transition for regional governments and opposition parties alike. The Zuma era has ended in South Africa while Mozambique, Namibia and Angola have also seen political transitions, pushing modernization agendas to appeal to young citizenries that increasingly see politics in separate terms from the liberationist struggles of the previous generation.

Regional opposition movements also face winds of change: the longstanding opposition leader in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Etienne Tshekedi, passed away in 2017, and Mozambique’s Afonso Dhlakama and Kenya's Raila Odinga are both aging. These movements similarly need to appeal to a younger audience or risk losing relevance.

From trade unionist to opposition leader

Tsvangirai’s career is an eloquent illustration of these challenges. Born in Buhera in rural eastern Zimbabwe, Tsvangirai worked in textiles and mining before politics – diverse experience which gave him crucial exposure to the lives of ordinary people across the country. In his early years, he also worked for ZANU-PF, before leaving to forge his own political path. He became increasingly active in mining politics, rising to the executive of the National Mineworker's Union and, in 1989, to secretary-general of the powerful Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

In the late 1990's, Zimbabwe was riven by questions over land, war veterans, the Congo conflict, a shrinking economy and growing doubts about ZANU-PF itself. Opposition leaders of the time could not answer them; those such as Edgar Tekere and Margaret Dongo struggled to win support beyond their local constituencies, and liberation leader Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU had been merged with ZANU-PF in the 1987 Unity Accord.

But in 2000, Zimbabwe's ‘perfect storm’ of a divisive constitutional referendum, land redistribution and a June election made Tsvangirai and the newly minted MDC, formed in 1999, a national rival to ZANU-PF. Through subsequent national elections in 2002, 2005, 2008 and 2013, Zimbabwe remained polarized between competing visions of Zimbabwe future: ZANU-PF's powerful black liberationist politics of identity and the opposition's equally compelling liberal democracy agenda.

Tsvangirai's achievement was to provide a credible alternative to liberation icon Robert Mugabe. Tsvangirai also resuscitated Zimbabwe's tradition of urban nationalism, and was a successor to Benjamin Burombo and other mid-century Zimbabwean urban leaders. Tsvangirai would in turn be a touchstone for contemporary urban activists Evans Mawarire, Linda Masarira and others.

From opposition to coalition

The political struggle for Zimbabwe became global, with Mugabe and Tsvangirai both winning support from rival international power blocs. In March 2007, pictures of a beaten and bloodied Tsvangirai helped to galvanize support for the MDC in the 2008 elections. But the disputed result and violent subsequent run-off between Tsvangirai and Mugabe led the regional community to push both men into a coalition government, with Tsvangirai as prime minister.

Despite continuous ructions, the Government of National Unity (GNU) held, and stabilized Zimbabwe's collapsed economy, until 2013. Although often politically out-manoeuvred by Mugabe, Tsvangirai deserves credit for getting the opposition a share of political power and for holding his nerve against many who wanted to collapse the GNU.

Tsvangirai was no saint; his complicated love life, and tacit approval of violent attacks on party dissenters, do him no credit. More importantly, the MDC neglected its grassroots supporters during the GNU, and paid the price in its comprehensive 2013 electoral defeat. But although diminished, Tsvangirai remained Zimbabwe's most popular opposition politician, and the MDC’s new leaders will have quite a task ahead of them, even if they have been planning since his courageous 2016 public admission of colon cancer.

The MDC after Tsvangirai

Nelson Chamisa, one of the three MDC vice presidents, has now been appointed as acting president by the party's national committee. Chamisa inherits a fractured and fractious party, and one which has also fallen out with the Tsvangirai family. The other two vice presidents, Thokozani Khupe and Elias Mudzuri, have also set their sights on party leadership.

At 40, Chamisa, an orator with grassroots appeal, has a huge task. With general elections due by July, he has to unite the party, counter Zimbabwe's rising ethno-politics, prove himself as leader of a broader opposition coalition and take on a resurgent President Emmerson Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF.

Electorally, the opposition's strongest card has always been the urban vote and the economy. But Mnangagwa has fast forwarded a comprehensive economic reform and internationalist agenda. This, and Mugabe's exit, have forced Chamisa, Joice Mujuru and other opposition leaders to play catch-up. Zimbabwe's elections, the first since 2000 without Mugabe and Tsvangirai as contenders, will be of global interest as the country navigates the new political dynamics.

The people’s champion

Morgan Tsvangirai's resilience earned him respect from friends and foes alike, with Zimbabwe's President Mnangagwa and Vice President Constantino Chiwenga visiting him at home a few weeks ago. A former nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, Tsvangirai, popularly known by his totem of ‘Save’ and also called mudhara [the old man] deserves national hero status. He will certainly be remembered as the ‘people's champion’, and a pioneer in bridging the generational and ideological fissures that have shaped Southern Africa’s politics.

With their leader now gone, the turbulent MDC will undoubtedly be hoping for a ‘remembrance vote’ in his memory to carry them through the elections. But beyond that, his story offers a powerful example to a region in need of new political compromises

Dr Knox Chitiyo, Associate Fellow, Africa Programme.

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