Five Business Lessons Learnt From the Political Activism and Iconic Life of Tsvangirai

Not so long ago, President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga visited Morgan Tsvangirai, their political opponent, to check on his health and advise on the benefits the government had awarded him. This act of kindness revealed to the public, the extent of Tsvangirai’s terminal illness.

As the photos of the visit went viral, the nation was stunned. Tsvangirai was a man who had endured and conquered a lot, under extremely difficult circumstances and therefore the general expectation was that, like others, he would beat the cancer’s dreadfulness, even if it was for a little while longer. It was not to be. Zimbabwe’s most formidable opposition leader and former prime minister (2009-2013), succumbed to colon cancer, in Johannesburg on February 14.

Tsvangirai will be remembered most for being the enduring face of Zimbabwe’s weighed down and tyrannised opposition, courageously and dauntlessly challenging former president Robert Mugabe and almost dislodging him in the 2008 elections after MDC polled more votes than Zanu PF. It is rumoured that Mugabe had conceded defeat, but without the backing of Thabo Mbeki, Sadc and the Zimbabwe security forces, that golden opportunity was squandered.

Tsvangirai was no perfectionist but as a pioneer for the fight for freedom and democracy in Zimbabwe, there are lessons to be learnt from his political activism and iconic life. Tsvangirai was no businessman. He operated first as a textile weaver, then ventured into mining as an employee in Bindura during which time he became active in the trade union sphere and then later on he joined in the political space. From this political setting, there are lessons that are transportable to the business environment. Below please find five.

l Fearlessness and timing is everything — Tsvangirai joined Zanu PF at independence and rose to be a senior member of the organisation. According to William Gumede, writing for the NewStatesman of June 12 2008, “… he rose from humble roots to become plant foreman of the Bindura Nickel Mine, while pursuing a parallel trade union career that saw him elected as general secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) in 1988. Under Tsvangirai, the ZCTU bucked the African trend whereby trade unions become mere appendages of governments once the liberation movements to which they were linked assumed power.”

Observing the winds of change taking place in Zambia where Frederick Chiluba in 1991, had ousted the independence leader Kenneth Kaunda, who had clung to power since independence in 1964, Tsvangirai formed the Movement for Democrat Change (MDC) in 1999, abandoning Zanu PF, a liberation party which had become home for him.

By this time, Zanu PF had already entrenched its power. The nation was gripped with fear, for Mugabe had clearly laid out the road map for his dictatorship by repressing the political landscape. Still, sitting liberation movements in power were untouchables. It was perceived to be political suicide to even consider to be their opposition. The narrative was that they brought the nation freedom, bloody freedom for that matter and therefore should not be challenged. But Tsvangirai was not deterred. He refused to bite. His timing, gutsy and gallant march into unknown political territory as a leader of a new political party, was exact and punctilious.

In business it is key to avoid the risk of not trying and then spend valuable time in the future regretting, wishing you had. If your gut tells you the ideas you have for business are compelling, go for it and be fearlessly undaunted in their pursuit.

Strive Masiyiwa, the first Zimbabwean billionaire businessman, ventured into telecommunications in 1993 in a market and regulatory environment that was disabling and hostile, but today the market capitalisation of Econet Wireless Group is over a billion dollars and turnover is in excess of $4 billion.

l Surround yourself with people who complement your own weaknesses — Higher education, while important, is not a pre-requisite for trailblazing action and success. The son of a communal farmer, mine worker, carpenter and bricklayer, Tsvangirai was born to Dzingirai-Chibwe Tsvangirai and Lydia Tsvangirai (née Zvaipa) on March 10 1952. He was the eldest of nine children. After doing his primary education at St. Marks Goneso Primary School in Wedza and Chikara Primary School in Gutu, he proceeded to do his secondary education at Gokomere High School. Tsvangirai did not proceed further after attaining eight Ordinary Levels at 16 because he had to work in order to assist his parents look after his siblings.

Independence liberation war leaders who are educated and supposedly more informed have presided over the economic downfall of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, the outcomes of their grandeur in education have been instrumental in worsening the vulnerabilities of poor communities.

In Zimbabwe, many people drunk from their numerous academic accomplishments used to sigh at the prospect of Tsvangirai only equipped with a high school diploma, possibly ascending to the presidency. Mugabe who prided himself for acquiring seven degrees was one of them.

And yet, for what he lacked in education and experience, Tsvangirai managed by surrounding himself with professionals who complemented his own weaknesses.

High academic qualifications are not a panacea for political nor business success. In both spheres, no one person has the monopoly of great ideas. The university of experience usually thumbs education. When you surround yourself with great people with phenomenal competences in their areas of expertise, then listen to them. Tsvangirai might not necessarily have listened all the time to those who complemented his weakness, but he had the wisdom to have them at his disposal.

l Persevere in the face of adversity — Tsvangirai’s political activism and general political life was marred with violence of one form or another. Tsvangirai himself claimed to have been the target of four assassination attempts.

Security forces descended on him in 1989 after he was openly vocal about the escalation of political repression in the country. This was just nine years after independence and a decade before he set up MDC-T. But Tsvangirai remained resolute and unwavering.

Mugabe’s Zanu PF-led government detained him on numerous occasions over his political activism and public criticism of their policies and treatment of any dissenting voices.

In 2001, his political career was almost interrupted when he was tried over trumped up charges that he had conspired to kill Mugabe, the accusations having been made by a self-proclaimed ex-Israeli spy. Tsvangirai was eventually cleared and resumed his political career undaunted.

In March 2007, the police force fiercely cracked down on Tsvangirai and several opposition activists when they attempted to stage an anti-government rally. Mugabe and his security establishment were denounced by the international community after images of his bloody and swollen face went viral.

In a News24 report dated February 15 2018 chronicling his trials and tribulations entitled, Morgan Tsvangirai, ‘was the enduring face of Zimbabwe’s downtrodden opposition’, they quoted Tsvangirai at the time saying, “Yes, they brutalised my flesh. But they will never break my spirit. I will soldier on until Zimbabwe is free.”

The article continued, “In 2009, just three weeks after becoming prime minister in Zimbabwe’s first post-independence power-sharing government, his wife Susan was killed in a car crash that also left him injured. But some commentators suggested that it was his crushing defeat in fraud-riddled elections in 2013 that he was never able to recover from. And in 2016 he announced that he was undergoing chemotherapy to treat colon cancer.”

Having gone through these experiences, Tsvangirai certainly had an unbreakable spirit.

The business lessons to be learnt from the adversity endured by Tsvangirai are many and for the purposes of this article, a few are summarised below as follows:

Perseverance is the fuel that helps you achieve success

There is a price to pay for success. That price is resilience. What keeps many organisations from moving from good to great is simply the unwillingness to pay the price of endurance, to make the exertion and the effort to sacrifice their ease and comfort.

Life in all its facets is a battlefield. Successful personalities have weathered all sorts of adversities and problems in life and have emerged victorious from that battle of life.

Tsvangirai might have never made it to presidency but his achievements were far much more presidential for he left Zimbabwe with a legacy, a legacy that says, never again!

l Always be a change agent –In the period December 1997 and early 1998, Tsvangirai brought the country to a standstill by leading a series of stayaways in protestation against tax increases. Mugabe’s government had to cancel two tax raises that were meant to fund war veterans pensions. Tsvangirai nearly paid the ultimate price, death, for this successful mass action.

He survived a murder attempt in 1997 by, it is alleged a group of the most feared CIO men bursting into his office, hitting him on the head with a metal bar and attempting to throw him out of the window from his 10th floor office.

Tsvangirai will go down in history as the only opposition politician with the nerve and audacity to fight Mugabe. He was a transformational change agent and pathfinder. Change agents are brave people, always. Tsvangirai was the first opposition politician to whet the appetite of downtrodden Zimbabweans on the possibility of change. He did this long before change agent Obama became a household name.

Tsvangirai was also an anti-corruption advocate who in another separate change intervention influenced the outcomes of the 2013 Constitution.

On the business landscape, the wars for survival might be less bloody than what Tsvangirai endured, but the lessons are basically the same. The lesson to be learnt here is: best leaders have to be accustomed in leading change, so if you want to be in leadership of any organisation, embrace change.

In the Journal of Information Technology Education, Holly Donging Zhu and Michael Jones writing in their paper entitled, Huawei: An Exemplar for Organisational Change in a Modern Environment, had to say this about global company, “Huawei’s development is an extraordinary transformational change agenda. Its founder, Ren Zhengfei, a veteran of China’s Liberation Army, started Huawei as a one-man sales agent selling PBXs (Private Branch Exchanges) in 1987. By 1993, Ren had built a research and development team, and Huawei designed its very own digital PBX. From 1995, Huawei started entering overseas markets.”

In his 2018 New Year message, CEO Ken Hu of the telecom equipment and smartphone maker expected revenue to rise 15% to $92,08, almost trebling from the 2014 levels of $35,35 million. Huawei has had phenomenal growth “… employing over 150 000 staff around the world, and having a product presence in over 140 countries, serving more than one third of world’s population. From an unknown one-man sales agent to an international telecommunications equipment giant, this transformation is a quantum leap. One clear observation can be made about this case: Huawei is a master of change.”

In all facets of our lives, particularly in business, we ignore change at our peril.

l Have a well laid out succession plan — Particularly within the MDC where he exuded a cult-like personality, Tsvangirai ought to have had a clearly laid out succession plan. He did not. He left Engineer Elias Mudzuri as acting president of the MDC-T when he travelled to South Africa for hospitalisation. Therefore, it would appear that, that must be the logical starting point.

Political analysts have warned that the party is likely to face a major split following his death. Acutely aware of his failing health, Tsvangirai accepted his party’s nomination to be the presidential figure in the upcoming 2018 elections. He obviously wanted to recover, but did not. Still, there should have been a viable contingency plan.

Hardly a week before his death, senior members of his party were clashing in public in a power struggle between, co-vice president Mudzuri and one of his deputies Advocate Nelson Chamisa, over who was in charge of the party. As the jockeying for the top job continues, crucial 2018 elections are a few months away.

Succession planning is a vital part of operating an institution be it in the political sphere or in business. As morbid as it might sound, no one body made up of flesh and blood lasts forever. Be that as it may, succession planning must already be in place as the head of the organisation nears retirement.

But, “retirement” in Zimbabwe in both politics and business has become a swear word that is why we have many institutions being led by people who have been at the helm for more than 10 years. And still, many do not have succession plans.

Particularly in the private sector, by making business succession arrangements early, the founders and business owners help make a smooth transition and minimise any negative effects of their departure on the organisation.

We now await the outcomes in MDC-T with baited breath.

Morgan Tsvangirai #Save/Dziva, may your dear soul rest in eternal peace.

 Gloria Ndoro-Mkombachoto is an entrepreneur and a regional enterprise development consultant. Her experience spans a period of over 25 years. She can be contacted at

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