By Japhet M. Zwana, Ph.D

Dr. Japhet M. Zwana, is a retired professor from the State University of New York ( Albany and Old Westbury), and a regular contributor to this blog.

The word ‘gamba’ in ChiShona, a language spoken by the majority of Zimbabweans, refers to an illustrious person who is often exalted after death. In other words, a he/shero. Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, the late leader of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was such an individual. Born in 1952 in a small village (Gutu) in Southern Rhodesia, Zimbabwe’s colonial name before independence in 1980, he died in 2018 after a two year battle with cancer.

    Journey to prominence

Tsvangirai was the eldest of nine siblings and was forced to quit school at a tender age in order to look for employment so he could assist his parents in maintaining the family. His first job was in a nickel mine in 1974 where he became an active member of the Associated Mineworkers Union. Through hard work, he scaled the ranks of the labor organization and, in 1988, became secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). Between 1997 and 1998 he was responsible for a series of successful strikes aimed at President Mugabe’s tax policy. To demonstrate his appetite for political activism, he became chair of the nongovernmental National Constitutional Assembly, formed in 1997 to advocate for free elections and a more democratic Zimbabwe.

His political sprint began with the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), in 1999 to undo President Robert Mugabe’s tight grip on power. The incipient MDC flexed its muscle in February 2000 in a nationwide constitutional referendum and single handedly dealt a heavy blow to Mugabe’s nefarious proposals to extend his tenure in office.  The MDC further caused a stir in the June 2000 parliamentary elections by winning more votes than Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front, (ZANU-PF).

The presence of Tsvangirai in the political space began to increasingly spook Mugabe and ZANU PF so much that Morgan Tsvangirai found himself in numerous trumped up legal troubles,  including a treason charge for attempting to assassinate Mugabe. After a prolonged trial, he was found not guilty but had to endure one more treason charge for “fomenting protests against the government”, accompanied by a severe police beating on his way to a church arranged prayer meeting. With these events he actually became an international cynosure.

2008 Presidential Election Stolen From Tsvangirai

The 2008 presidential high stakes presented their own drama in which Tsvangirai was a major actor. Preliminary results pointed to a positive outcome for Tsvangirai/ MDC but Mugabe/ZANU’s shenanigans sank their hopes. In fact, Tsvangirai captured 47.9% of the vote to Mugabe’s 43.2%. But since neither man had secured a 50+ 1 majority, a run off was ordered. Before the date of reckoning, the reign of state terror on the opposition was so blatant and unbearable that the MDC President decided to drop out of the race. Global condemnation of the conduct of the election and pressure from neighboring economic powerhouse South Africa gave way to suggestions for a ZANU/MDC power sharing arrangement.

But this joint venture was doomed from the very start. Official appointments, including cabinet, were made single handedly by Mugabe with no consultation with the MDC leadership. And there were continued and wide spread human rights violations, even when the MDC was part of the power sharing arrangement. A leading official of the MDC had to flee the country after facing serious trumped up charges of terrorism and insurrection.

Tsvangirai’s legacy?

So, having failed to dislodge the Mugabe regime, can history claim that Tsvangirai accomplished anything? One way we know about Tsvangirai is through statements made by some of his admirers or people who worked with him. They claim that what he did and the role he played as opposition leader make the man stand out among Zimbabwe’s luminaries. One such individual is Dr. Handel Mlilo, former MDC chief representative in Washington. He states, in part, ‘Tsvangirai may very well be remembered for enshrining Zimbabwe as a democracy. He and his MDC made sure that Robert Mugabe and his ZANU/PF did not legally and constitutionally turn Zimbabwe into the one party autocratic state that they had always longed to do. Since taking power, in early 1980, Mugabe made it plain that this was his goal and proceeded to destroy every other political organization that stood in his way. But the MDC, under Tsvangirai, stopped him and his henchmen cold. And while Mugabe often derided Tsvangirai’s lack of formal education, it was clear that he had educated himself about what matters most in a leader: the ability to bring people along to your point of view and stamp your imprimatur into events’.

Herbert O. Zimuto, a former Zimbabwean school headmaster and Cabinet Minister offered the following: ‘Morgan Tsvangirai was instrumental in the creation of a new constitution for Zimbabwe. In 1999 he formed an opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change(MDC) to challenge President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU/PF. In June 2000 the MDC provided serious opposition to challenge ZANU/PF in the country’s history by winning almost as many seats as ZANU/PF in the elections. In 2009, MDC’s political momentum forced ZANU/PF to agree to form a government of national unity of which Tsvangirai became Prime Minister’.

In His Own Words

And while we can learn a lot about an individual by reading or listening to what other people have said or written about him/her, we can also see a person’s character by what he/she has written or spoken. Some of Tsvangirai’s famous sayings lay out his vision for Zimbabwe:

 “Yes, they brutalized my flesh. But, they will never break my spirit. I will soldier on until Zimbabwe is free.”

“We have nothing to show for our independence, except overwhelming poverty.”

“The people are now crying for peace and national healing.”

 “For too long, our people’s hopes for a bright and prosperous future have been betrayed. Instead of hope, their days have been filled with starvation, disease and fear. A culture of entitlement and impunity has brought our nation to the brink of a dark abyss. This must end today.”

“From the day I was born, there has always existed a huge disconnect between the stories often told by the elite and those I hear from ordinary people about our country, although, we live in the same places and witness the same events around us.”

Mugabe may be gone but his ZANU-PF party still rules Zimbabwe with an iron fist. So what then did Tsvangirai actually accomplish? The former labor champion and  political party founder, like most great men and women, has a legacy with pluses and minuses. Most analysts would agree that his positive ledger is much thicker. For one, he earned the name of David for possessing the valor to challenge an autocrat, the Goliath Robert Mugabe, at the risk of his own life.

And the essence of Tsvangirai was captured in a poignant statement by Professor Stephen Chan of the School of Oriental and African studies in London. In his 2006 book titled, ‘Citizen of Africa: Conversations with Morgan Tsvangirai’, he admits: ‘I have not made a saint of him, not even an Atlas. I hope I have not criticized him too much or too unfairly. Probably no one could have done for Zimbabwe what he has.”

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