Morgan Tsvangirai addresses an election rally in 2005. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

MDC’s founder aspired to build a beautiful Zimbabwe when all around him were those lopping off its branches

With the death of Morgan Tsvangirai at the age of 65 from cancer, Zimbabwe has lost a man of conspicuous courage. He took the country’s political scene by storm, becoming president Robert Mugabe’s only serious rival for the better part of two decades, and campaigned until the end for a better country with greater democracy and transparency.

Tsvangirai became prime minister of Zimbabwe in September 2008 as part of a power-sharing agreement with Mugabe. He was sworn in the following year, and remained in office till 2013, but the path to get there had been long and vexed.

Tsvangirai’s decision to help found, then lead, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999 decisively tilted the political struggle in Zimbabwe from one between civil society and government to one that was based on a contest between political parties. He was arrested in both 2000 and 2003 on unsuccessful treason charges and, in 2007, was badly beaten while in custody. Even his bitterest enemies and detractors acknowledged his courage and determination.

Born in Gutu, Masvingo in the south-east of the country, Tsvangirai grew up in a poor family, one of nine children of Chibwe, a bricklayer, and his wife, Lydia, and never attained the educational qualifications required for university study. Much later, when already in political life, he attended Harvard’s Kennedy school programme for executive leadership, and tried to make up for his lack of extended education by assiduous reading. He had a liking for political biographies, and his hero was Nelson Mandela.

Mugabe had been a hero too, but when Tsvangirai began his career as a union official, first as vice president of the Associated Mine Workers Union in the late 1980s, and particularly as secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions from 1988 to 2000, he began disputing Mugabe’s decision to implement economic structural adjustment programmes that badly affected his members. He was beaten by Mugabe’s thugs at this time, most spectacularly in 1997 when assailants tried to throw him out of a skyscraper window. However, they failed to intimidate him and, by the second half of the 1990s, he had become a formidable opponent of Mugabe and his Zanu-PF government.

Morgan Tsvangirai addresses an election rally in 2005
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 Morgan Tsvangirai addresses an election rally in 2005. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Tsvangirai played a leading part in the formation of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) and was its chair in 1997-98. This was a convention of the major civil society groups in Zimbabwe, which fought for constitutional liberalism.

Once the MDC was in operation, its rapid growth and capacity shook Zanu-PF, and Mugabe lost a referendum on constitutional reform in 2000 because of MDC opposition. His response was to immediately launch invasions of farms held by white landowners, both to assert his authority and to fulfil his life’s dream of a completed nationalism. However, this began the precipitate decline of the Zimbabwean economy. As Mugabe became more repressive of dissent, Tsvangirai’s star rose among the disaffected of Zimbabwe and as a darling of the west.

Mugabe accused Tsvangirai of being a puppet of the west, a clone of Tony Blairand fought his electoral campaigns on the negative platform of avoiding the return of colonialism with Tsvangirai as the frontman of the old powers. But he also cheated, and the rigging of the 2002 presidential elections was sufficient to deny Tsvangirai victory.

The extent of rigging in the 2005 parliamentary elections is disputed, but the MDC retained a powerful voice in parliament. However, it was the intensity of events surrounding the two electoral rounds in 2008 that saw crisis, stalemate and finally a compromise breakthrough in Zimbabwe. Mugabe and Zanu-PF had been certain they would win, and the extent of MDC support surprised even Tsvangirai. Most objective commentators agreed that he took sufficient votes to become president, but the protracted process of counting allowed the government to ensure sufficient scaling down of the figures to force a runoff. The build-up to it was one of greatly increased state violence, forcing Tsvangirai to withdraw and for Mugabe to claim victory.

That “victory” convinced no one, and even the previously tolerant presidents in other southern African countries began turning against Mugabe. Against this backdrop, South African president Thabo Mbeki’s mediation led finally to the sort of compromise achieved at the beginning of 2008 in Kenya, with a murky share of the spoils between both a president and a prime minister.

Tsvangirai negotiated well in the face of pressure from Mbeki to come to an early agreement, and immediately afterwards offered olive branches to a glum Mugabe. The challenges of economic recovery facing Tsvangirai were immense and he confronted them, knowing also that many in Zimbabwe, even among his own supporters, questioned whether the man who had been the fully courageous opposition leader could muster the capacity to restore a complex, broken nation. Many had blamed the split in the MDC in 2006 on his heavy-handed and maladroit handling of internal dissatisfactions with his leadership; and it was also thought that, had he been more generous by way of political concessions to the breakaway group, he would have won the 2008 election by a large enough margin to make subsequent scaling down of the figures far more difficult, if not impossible.

He became the prime minister in an uneasy coalition. Zanu-PF threw a multitude of obstacles in Tsvangirai’s way. The core triumph of his party’s role in government was the stabilisation of an economy hit by mega-inflation. Much of this was due to the work of the MDC finance minister, Tendai Biti, and his adoption of the US dollar as the national currency. Money could no longer be printed at will or on a whim. The role of the prime minister, however, was less clearcut. Subject to the president, Tsvangirai’s scope for radical change was limited. However, since the MDC commanded a slim parliamentary majority, there was the possibility of a raft of legislative reform. None, however was forthcoming, and it must be said that Tsvangirai missed one of the few golden chances available to him.

President Robert Mugabe and MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai pictured in 2008
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 President Robert Mugabe shakes hands with Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai in 2008, after a deal was struck between Zimbabwe’s opposition and ruling party. Photograph: Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images

He had a core support in Zimbabwe’s cities. Even though often despairing of Mugabe and Zanu-PF, the rural poor were never fully won over by Tsvangirai. The influx of food aid to a hungry and malnourished rural population was exploited by Zanu-PF, and Tsvangirai never attempted to plan or argue for the genuine land reform and restoration of rural infrastructure that Mugabe’s rushed efforts let fall by the wayside. Above all, the presidents of the southern African region were never persuaded to give unstinting support to Tsvangirai, and his diplomatic overtures to them were under-thought and unsuccessful.

The death of his wife, Susan Mhundwa, in 2009 – in a suspicious car accident – robbed him of close emotional support. She was extremely popular with the MDC rank and file as a person of immense personal compassion. Tsvangirai’s succession of subsequent affairs and involvements robbed him of some of his patina as a man uncorrupted by personal needs and vanities. The slide into the benefits of office afflicted the MDC parliamentarians, many of whom did not fulfil their roles as MPs with diligence – without any programme of discipline from the prime minister. Above all, however, the fall from power of Mbeki in South Africameant that there was no regional enforcer of the terms and conditions of the coalition, some of which concerned electoral reform in time for the 2013 elections. As a result, Tsvangirai and the MDC entered those elections with bravado but without assurances of a properly level playing field. As it was, his lacklustre performance as prime minister probably acted against him as much as any electoral irregularities benefited Zanu-PF.

Having resumed his role as leader of the opposition in 2013, Tsvangirai was powerless or unwilling to prevent the splits that developed within the MDC. The weakened MDC was not therefore the standard-bearer of revolt against Mugabe. That was left to informal civil society groups such as This Flag, and, above all, to elements within Zanu-PF itself, as ambitious members began to seek out the succession from an ailing and ageing president. The power struggle within Zanu-PF resulted first in the conspicuous casualty of vice-president Joice Mujuru, but Tsvangirai was unable to accommodate her and her followers in an opposition he led. When, finally, Mugabe’s ambitious wife, Grace, engineered the overthrow of vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, using the same tactics she had used against Mujuru, it was the army – with support from a broad cross-section of Zanu-PF – that finally removed Mugabe from office. It was an indictment of the opposition that they had been ineffectual in their primary aim.

By this stage, Tsvangirai was clearly suffering from cancer. He did not move to appoint or nominate or even suggest a successor, so that a divided opposition – even one seeking to plaster over its cracks – will contest the 2018 elections. And it will be one without the charisma he never lost. The sight of Tsvangirai on the hustings was always an inspirational one. He could move huge crowds and his message was always one of reform, democracy and empowerment. As the figurehead of aspiration in the politics of Zimbabwe he was beyond compare.

Morgan Tsvangirai addresses supporters at an MDC rally in April 2000
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 Morgan Tsvangirai addresses supporters at an MDC rally in April 2000. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

All who met him in those early days of opposition were also struck by a fundamental decency and gentleness. In 2005, when he was facing treason charges and the prospect of a rigged election, I wrote a book with him which was subsequently distributed to international observers. After our last writing session we relaxed in his garden and he pointed at a beautiful tree that, every year, when it flowered, gave him terrible hay fever with its copious pollen. He intuited immediately the unspoken question. “But cut it down? No no … no. How does one cut down something of such beauty?”

It is not a usual thing to write about political figures anywhere, never mind in the murky world of Zimbabwean politics, but Tsvangirai aspired to build a beautiful Zimbabwe when all around him were those lopping off its branches. His idealism was counterpointed by his naivety in office. His determination and courage were counterpointed by his stubbornness and inability to sustain coalitions of those opposed to Mugabe. He never learned to tame his impulsiveness and learn the protracted arts of tip-toeing through a minefield of different agendas in governmental or opposition coalitions with checks and balances and vexed conditionalities that, without goodwill, made any progress impossible.

His legacy is that he stood up to face Mugabe and his huge securitised machinery of control and patronage. He was a David figure who, in the shadow of Goliath, did not break and run. His immense courage as the first opposition leader of stature in Zimbabwean history will be forever a testament to him, but not his accomplishments as a beleaguered prime minister.

Tsvangirai is survived by the six children he had with his first wife, Susan, whom he married in 1978. After her death in 2009, Locardia Karimatsenga claimed he had married her in a traditional ceremony in 2010. He formally married Elizabeth Macheka in 2012 and is survived by her.

  • Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, trade unionist and politician, born 10 March 1952; died 14 February 2018.

This was first published by The Guardian