Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change party (MDC), died in Johannesburg late on Wednesday. He had been ill with cancer for more then two years and came to South Africa early January for further treatment.
Tsvangirai, 65, who cut his political teeth in the trade union movement came from a peasant family but went on to become the only politician who could beat Robert Mugabe at the polls and the MDC was the only political party to seriously challenge the ruling Zanu PF which was in power since independence in 1980.
People were weeping openly in central Harare as news spread around town about the death of the only politician who had enough political and mental strength to take on Mugabe’s authoritarian rule
Tsvangirai was regularly detained and beaten up by Mugabe’s officials from 1989 onwards and went on to become prime minister in an inclusive government in Zimbabwe from 2009.
His first wife Susan died next to him when the vehicle in which they were travelling was smashed into by a truck south of Harare days within days of the government of national unity, as it was known, was sworn into power.
Tsvangirai’s mother, Lidya Chibwe, was at his side when he died and much of his family had been keeping a vigil at the hospital for the last few weeks. His second wife, Elizabeth, confirmed this afternoon her husband had died.
Tsvangirai was unchallenged as the most popular leader in Zimbabwe’s urban areas, and despite intimidation and violence, many, even in the Zanu PF dominated countryside voted for him in 2008 when the MDC narrowly won elections and he beat Mr Mugabe in the first round of the presidential election which the MDC said was rigged.
So many were killed and injured during campaigning for the run off, Tsvangirai pulled out of the polls which lead to negotiations, mediated by former president Thabo Mbeki, and finally a unity government which partially restored the wrecked economy.
He first came into the public eye when he began to build the trade union movement after independence and within a decade, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, (ZCTU) became a leading political force when the country was, effectively a one-party state, controlled by Mugabe’s Zanu PF party.
After years of civil unrest and food shortages in the 1990’s, civil rights groups and unionists came together from around the country and the MDC emerged in late 1999, and Tsvangirai was elected its leader.
Six months later the MDC delivered Mugabe his first political defeat when the new party successfully rallied opposition to a new constitution.
Later that year, the MDC came within three seats of beating Zanu PF at general elections and then the violence erupted.
Scores were killed and thousands beaten up and detained. Mugabe, in fury unleashed invasions of white-owned farms as both farmers and many of their workers had come out to vote for the MDC and helped it raise funds.
Within a year after those elections it was almost impossible for Tsvangirai to campaign and Mugabe’s officials, in particular the security sector, made it almost impossible or the MDC to campaign.
Zimbabwe’s veteran analyst and academic, Brian Raftopoulos said: “We are all heartbroken. It is terrible, The legacy of Tsvangirai is that he was one of the greatest opposition leaders of the post colonial period, and he defeated one of the major liberation movements of the region, and he was denied that victory.
“He was beaten, tortured, imprisoned, exiled and yet he still retained a real basic humanity and a wonderful sense of humour. Tsvangirai was a really warm human being.”
Under Tsvangirai, the MDC, was a main negotiator in Zimbabwe’s new Constitution adopted in 2013, which outlawed detention without trial and reformed many institutions.
Zimbabwe historian David Moore, professor of Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), said: “Tsvangirai, changed the lives and expectations of ordinary people as Robert Mugabe made it clear, from independence, he was committed to a one-party state.
“Within five years of Zimbabwe’s birth, Tsvangirai realised from the factory floor where he worked that under the ruling Zanu PF party there would be no justice for the working class.
“He rebuilt the trade union movement and began to challenge Mugabe’s retention of Rhodesian security legislation. As Zanu PF abandoned its commitment to “socialism”, Tsvangirai became a leading critic. He was persecuted consistently by the massive state media, the intelligence community and the security sector for more 30 years. No one in Zimbabwe’s sad history did more to challenge the fearful state created by Mugabe, then Tsvangirai.”