Morgan Tsvangirai: The tragic hero who defined Zim’s opposition politics


Morgan Tsvangirai: The tragic hero who defined Zim’s opposition politics

THE SouthernTIMES Mar 19, 2018

    > Lovemore Ranga Mataire

    It is often said that the dead are without blemish but there are certain tributes that fail to stick to our departed ones.


    reedom fighter, national hero and liberator were some of the superlatives used to describe Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai by his legion of supporters.

    Tsvangirai succumbed to cancer of the colon in South Africa and was buried on Tuesday at his rural home in Buhera on the south-eastern part of Zimbabwe.

    During a funeral wake that lasted for almost a week, MDC-T supporters eulogised their leader as a freedom fighter, national hero and a liberator.

    It rather sounds incongruent to describe Tsvangirai as a liberator, national hero and freedom fighter because in real terms and in the Zimbabwean context the descriptions simply can’t stick.

    In the Zimbabwean nationalist discourse, a freedom fighter is one associated with the war of liberation who actively participated in the struggle for the attainment of the country’s independence either as a combatant or leader of the two main liberation political movements - Zanu and Zapu.

    It is the same with being a liberator or national hero. The reference is always to that arduous struggle which claimed thousands of lives both civilians and combatants. In other words, it is the broader struggle for the freedom of Zimbabwe from colonial repression that most Zimbabweans extol as virtuous.   

    Besides exhibiting courageous traits in confronting the post-independence establishment sometimes at a personal risk, Tsvangirai was never a participant of the liberation struggle. Unconfirmed reports say Tsvangirai was a war deserter and a collaborator of the colonial regime.

    The “deserter” allegations are given credence by the fact that despite working in Zimbabwe’s eastern town of Mutare on the border with Mozambique, which formed the rear-guard of Zanla forces, there is no report of the young Tsvangirai either aiding freedom fighters or contemplating crossing the border, which is a stone's throw away.

    In his autobiographical narrative co-authored with his late former spokesperson William Bango, Tsvangirai attributes his failure to join droves of young people crossing to Mozambique on the need to fend for his siblings.

    Most find his reasons for not participating in the struggle as lame excuses of typical “house niggers” of the time who never imagined that the country would one day be ruled by a black person.

    At independence, Tsvangirai was already a mine worker at Trojan Mine in Bindura in Mashonaland Central Province where he was active in trade unionism.

    He soon became the secretary-general of the newly formed Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions headed by the late Gibson Sibanda. Tsvangirai’s executive only worked collaboratively with the new majority government before declaring the workers’ body autonomy from the government a few years into independence.

    Many believe that some of the country’s detractors embittered by the victory of Zanu-PF in 1980 found a pliable partner in the ZCTU, which took a completely different route from trade unionism to political activism when its leadership was part of the National Constitutional Assembly.

    While the NCA was formed to advocate for constitutional reform, it was widely believed that the organisation prepared the groundwork for the eventual launch of the MDC as an opposition party in 1999.

    While there have been many opposition parties that challenged Zanu-PF’s hegemonic hold on power, none had ever been strong and widespread than the MDC, which nearly caused an upset winning 56 seats out 120 parliamentary seats in 2000.

    For the first time since independence, the country’s parliament consisted of a large number of opposition legislators. Tsvangirai was hailed by his supporters and his foreign backers as a fighter for democracy.

    But soon, Tsvangirai’s leadership flaws were soon to manifest. He once came out on CNN news channel receiving cheques from white commercial farmers who openly declared that they were investing their future in him.

    Such a move was viewed by many of the ruling party supporters as an affront to their aspirations as the white commercial farmers represented a residual relic of colonial oppression.

    But that was not all. Tsvangirai's political misjudgment was to be exposed when reports emerged that he had held meetings with an Israeli, Ari Ben-Menashe on the possibility of “eliminating” Mugabe. Although Tsvangirai was later acquitted, the episode led many to question his leadership style and judgment.

    It did not take long for fissures to emerge in the MDC when Tsvangirai disregarded the views of the majority members of his National Executive Council not to participate in Senate elections. The division led to a split with his then secretary-general Welshman Ncube and other executive members forming their own splinter party called MDC-N.

    A few years later, the party was to split again with Tendai Biti, his then secretary-general, leaving the party with other prominent executive members Elton Mangoma and Lucia Matibenga to form their own party, the MDC Renewal.

    To his credit, Tsvangirai, who renamed his party the MDC-T, appealed more to grassroots supporters than his other colleagues who were viewed as elitist.

    But more political gaffes that would further alienate Tsvangirai from even political neutrals were to follow. He together with some officials of his party hobnobbed to European capitals lobbying for the imposition of economic sanctions that would make the people suffer and rise against the then President Mugabe’s government.

    Tsvangirai’s wish was to be granted when the European Union and the United States were to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe that have remained today. Indeed, the sanctions worsened the economic prospects of the country leading to hyperinflation but people never rose against Mugabe (well until November 2017!).

    In a moment of unimaginable political miscalculation, the MDC-T leader once likened resettled black farmers to wild mushrooms that grow spontaneously everywhere. He also called for South Africa to switch off electricity to Zimbabwe so as to make the economy scream.

    It is for this reason that while the opposition leader is much celebrated in opposition circles for giving them an alternative voice, others still view him as a tragic hero blighted by his serious personality flaws.

    And even as his casket was being lowered down at his rural home in Humanikwa Village in Buhera, violence was being meted at some of the MDC senior members, including one of his vice presidents, Thokozani Khupe. Youths aligned to the other co-vice President Nelson Chamisa felt that Khupe was being an impediment to the young charismatic ambitions to take over the leadership of the opposition party.

    With all his follies, there is no denying the fact that Tsvangirai will be most remembered for his courage, his grassroots appeal, and his charisma. He is one political figure who defined Zimbabwe’s opposition politics.

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