Morgan Tsvangirai: From a nickel miner to an icon

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It’s a dark moment for Zimbabwe. Iconic opposition leader and former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has died after a two-year battle against colon cancer.

His death will remain as one of the rare moments that has united Zimbabwean politicians from across the political divide. His loyal supporters are inconsolable at the loss of their icon, but perhaps the greatest tribute is that those from the ruling elite, who have opposed and ridiculed him as a politician, have shown him respect.

Tsvangirai has, without doubt, been one of the greatest and most influential political figures in Zimbabwean history. He has always fought for the underdog, starting his activism as a trade unionist while working in a nickel mine.

His early years as a miner must have prepared him well for the rigours of his political life. In his speeches, he liked to draw from the “at the coal face” language of his early life in the mine tunnels.

It was his courage that stood out throughout his career. He challenged the regime of President Robert Mugabe at a time when many believed it was suicidal to do so. In 1989, Mugabe imprisoned him when he expressed solidarity with the student movement, which was protesting against corruption. He immediately became a target and there was an attempt to assassinate him.

As secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Tsvangirai honed his motivational and organisational skills. In 1998, he was the face of the large-scale protests against price hikes and taxes that the government was imposing to fund the profligacy of the political elite. Pioneering activists recognised his leadership skills and selected him to chair the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a group that was campaigning for constitutional reforms.

As his civic work grew beyond the traditional domain of trade unionism, the Mugabe regime felt threatened. The president dared him and his comrades in the unions to join politics if that was what they wanted. They obliged and formed the Movement of Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999, with Tsvangirai as its first leader. That would mark the beginning of his remarkable political career.

As leader of the new party, Tsvangirai worked with civic organisations, including the NCA, to defeat Mugabe’s proposed new constitution in 2000. The battle between the sides was over the process. Tsvangirai and the activists believed the process should be broad-based and more inclusive, while Mugabe had handpicked a commission chaired by a judge to write a constitution favouring his regime.

The defeat of Mugabe’s constitutional proposal was a seminal moment for a number of reasons. It showed that Mugabe could be defeated – it was the first time that he had lost a plebiscite. However, it was also a double-edged sword, which awakened Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF, from their slumber.

Realising that the MDC and civic society were a potent force, Mugabe unleashed the might of the repressive state machinery upon his opponents. ZANU-PF won the general election in June 2000 by a small margin, and, had the regime not used violence, the ruling party would probably have lost.

Tsvangirai contested three presidential elections, and many believe he would have won, had he not been cheated by the regime. The most glaring of this election manipulation and rigging was in 2008.

For the first time, Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in March that year. However, after a delay of six weeks, the electoral commission announced that Tsvangirai did not have enough votes to claim absolute majority. Many believe those results were manipulated.

This necessitated a second round of election between him and Mugabe. As it happened, the campaign for the runoff election was marred by egregious violence by state-sponsored groups, who terrorised mainly rural voters who were believed to have voted for Tsvangirai. Human rights groups say more than 200 people were killed, thousands were injured and many more lost their homes and property.

The violence against his supporters was so bad that Tsvangirai was forced to withdrawfrom the race a few days before the runoff election. This led to a sham runoff election in which Mugabe effectively ran alone. The African Union and the South African Development Community had to intervene, and this led to the formation of an Inclusive Government, a coalition between the MDC and ZANU-PF.

Tsvangirai could have remained stubborn, but he compromised and joined Mugabe as prime minister, in the coalition arrangement brokered by then South African President Thabo Mbeki. Tsvangirai always said he decided to work with his tormentor-in-chief because it was the necessary step to take in order to save lives.

The economy was in seriously bad shape and Zimbabweans were in a desperate situation. As it happened, Zimbabweans had much respite during those five years of the coalition government. Things got worse after 2013, when Mugabe again claimed victory in very controversial circumstances.

During his long struggle for democracy, Tsvangirai endured several unlawful detentions, beatings and torture at the hands of the Mugabe regime. The most vicious of these attacks was on March 11, 2007, when he was bashed mercilessly by state security agents while preparing to attend a prayer meeting in the suburb of Highfields.

It was this ugly spectacle that awakened Africa and the rest of the world to the sadist nature of the Mugabe regime and prompted them to take a more hands-on approach.

Despite all the heavy challenges that he faced, Tsvangirai remained resolute. Internally, he faced criticism from some of his comrades, with whom he had founded the party, but, towards the end of his life, he had been reunited with them under the banner of the MDC Alliance.

Some argued that he probably stayed on too long as leader of the opposition, but he always maintained that the job they had started in 1999 needed to be completed. Towards the end, however, he was preparing to hand over to a new generation, as he put it in his statement. He was unwell and he knew that he could not carry on any longer.

Sadly, his party is severely divided, as different factions vie to succeed him. The greatest irony in this moment after his death is that those who fought him and beat him up are giving him honour and respect, while those who struggled alongside him started fighting each other before he has even been buried. It’s an undignified fight which could have been avoided with proper succession planning.

How will Tsvangirai be remembered? He will live long in the memory of Zimbabweans as a tenacious fighter for democracy and freedom. He will always be a hero to many people. His name went far beyond Zimbabwe and is one of the most recognisable names from the southern African region.

He gave people hope. He inspired a generation, and, no doubt, his legacy will inspire future generations. He was not without fault, but then who among humans is? I worked with him and remember a humble, unassuming character who wanted the best for his fellow Zimbabweans and for humanity. It was a great honour and privilege to work with him.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.