Morgan Tsvangirai: a leader and a fighter

Morgan Tsvangirai has died. Zimbabwe has lost a great leader, a true fighter. As founder of the Movement for Democratic Change he was the first opposition leader in Zimbabwe to emerge from outside the ruling party. Starting out in the trade union movement, he knew how to mobilise. A great orator, and a man of the people he was widely popular, even amongst his foes. Today he is buried at his home village in Buhera next to his first wife at a state-supported funeral.

He might have become president had the violence of the 2008 elections not got out of hand. Instead he withdrew fearing worse, and later took on the poisoned chalice of the prime minister role in the Government of National Unity. And then in 2013 the MDC lost the election, as he later admitted, and began to fall apart, especially after he became ill with cancer, which finally killed him.

Like his great opponent Mugabe he failed to deal with the succession issue, and the current unseemly wrangling among the power-hungry MDC trio is witness to this failure in leadership at the end. Whatever political position you take, having a vibrant opposition is essential in any country. The MDC-T, as it became after the 2005 split, has been a vital part of political debate in Zimbabwe since 1999.

Where the MDC failed particularly was to generate an effective narrative that would appeal widely to people in the rural areas – of course the substantial majority of the electorate. ZANU-PF held sway, with its often simplistic populist, nationalist rhetoric, and with state resources for food aid and development projects could show its concern for rural issues.

Tsvangirai surrounded himself with top constitutional lawyers and white businessmen and farmers. All exceptionally smart, and deeply committed to change, but probably not the right people to lead new policy thinking on agrarian reform, nor develop strategies for rural mobilisation. Eddie Cross was for example the main spokesperson on agriculture and land, while the late Roy Bennett was also influential.

Tsvangirai, himself from a rural background in Masvingo province, deferred to these advisors. This was a mistake, and meant that, with equivocation around land reform and lack of vision around post-land reform rural development, the political terrain was left to ZANU-PF, who defended it vigorously, especially around elections.

As I have discussed on this blog before, the emerging class differentiation in rural areas was a potential open electoral opportunity for the MDC. Educated, aspirant, entrepreneurial, increasingly rich farmers, linked to urban areas, were an ideal constituency, but were ignored in favour of the urban masses, which of course was Tsvangirai’s territory from ZCTU days.

There were mistakes and misfortunes, intimidation and violence, as well as turns of events that meant that Tsvangirai’s ambitions were never realised. But over the last 20 years he has been central to political life in Zimbabwe, and made a massive contribution, as a strong, brave, courageous and principled politician. You can’t say that about many people.


Below are a number of links to obituaries and personal tributes, with much more detail on Tsvangirai’s life and important achievements. Twitter is of course full of many comments and tributes. On youtube, Oliver Mtukudzi has offered his own musical version.

  • Alex Magaisa offers a very personal and heartfelt BSR written hours after his death. He was a close adviser to the prime minister during the build-up to the fateful 2013 elections.
  • Stephen Chan provided the obituary for the Guardian newspaper. He again knew him well, and they wrote a book together. While recognising his great achievements, he makes some important comments about Tsvangirai’s failings and limitations.
  • Evan Mawarire, the #ThisFlag leader, highlights Tsvangirai’s courage in a piece in the Mail and Guardian, written just before he died.
  • David Moore offers a piece in The Conversation, reflecting on what might have been.

Other obituaries from some the major international newspapers tell a less interesting story – more the heroic narrative of peasant boy to union leader to valiant but brutalised opponent to the evil Mugabe (all true, but told without the nuance of those above). The NYT, Washington Post and The Telegraph offer some examples.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. Photo from @263chat


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