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Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s veteran opposition leader, who fought Robert Mugabe’s regime for many years has died. He was 65.
Arrested, beaten, charged with treason, and eventually made prime minister – Tsvangirai never achieved his aim to become president.
He was set to try for a fourth time in 2018, but the cancer he was diagnosed with in 2016 robbed him of that dream.
The dangerous work of a unionist in an autocratic state prepared him for the dirty game of Zimbabwean politics.
In 1997, when he was secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), he survived an assassination attempt by assailants who tried to throw him out of his 10th floor office window in central Harare. The attack was believed to be in retribution for ZCTU-led strikes against proposed taxes, including one to raise pensions for war veterans.
Charged with treason
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which Tsvangirai helped found in 1999, ignited hope amid growing despondency, corruption and mismanagement under Mugabe’s government.
But the new party and its allies, who included white farmers and their workers, underestimated their opponents.
In early 2000, war veterans began a campaign of sometimes violent farm invasions, and many opposition party supporters were killed or beaten in the run-up to the landmark poll in June.
The MDC narrowly lost the polls, but Mugabe and his party were primed. Days before the 2002 presidential poll, which he subsequently lost, Tsvangirai was charged with treason over a video tape that allegedly showed him plotting to kill Mugabe.
The tape, clearly a sting operation, embroiled Tsvangirai in a marathon legal battle. He was defended by Nelson Mandela’s former lawyer George Bizos, but faced the terrifying prospect of the hangman’s noose on conviction. Eventually he was acquitted, but the saga took its toll on him and his party.
In 2005, his old ally Welshman Ncube, who had stood trial with him at the High Court, and Gibson Sibanda, his former comrade from the ZCTU, broke away to form their own wing of the MDC.
The split probably cost Tsvangirai outright victory in presidential and parliamentary polls three years later. He won the first round, but not by a big enough margin to avoid a run-off.
In response, Mugabe’s party launched a violent campaign against perceived opposition supporters in the rural areas. At least 200 were killed, and Tsvangirai was forced to pull out. Mugabe claimed victory, but the regional SADC bloc intervened to negotiate a power-sharing government between him and Tsvangirai.
Although Tsvangirai and his top officials enjoyed the trappings of power, they had little influence. And Mugabe was able to keep his arch-rival close: he and Tsvangirai used to have tea and pancakes together once a week. It appears Tsvangirai may have been beguiled by Mugabe’s famous charm, as the wily political operator prepared the ground to secure himself a sweeping victory in polls four years later.
Critics say that Tsvangirai did himself no favours by pursuing a playboy lifestyle while prime minister: his wife Susan had been tragically killed in a car accident early on during Tsvangirai’s premiership.
Several messy affairs may have sullied his reputation in the eyes of the electorate. Mugabe also kept the best brains in Tsvangirai’s party preoccupied with drafting a new constitution, instead of pushing for electoral reforms to avoid what the MDC later believed to be brazen electoral theft in 2013.
Tsvangirai was the son of a brick-layer. The oldest of nine children, he left school at 16 to become a textile weaver to support his family. His lack of formal education (rectified later through personal study) was used against him by Mugabe’s allies, who disparaged Tsvangirai as a “tea boy”.
Derided as a stooge of the West, denounced at countless ruling party meetings, Tsvangirai nevertheless rose to become the only politician with the weight to counter Mugabe.
His death leaves a massive void in Zimbabwean politics.