Morgan Tsvangirai, former prime minister of Zimbabwe and a stubborn foe of recently deposed dictator Robert Mugabe, died at the age of 65 in a South African hospital on Wednesday.
Tsvangirai revealed he was battling colon cancer in June 2016 and visited South Africa a number of times for treatment. His condition prevented him from launching his fourth campaign for president, which would have pitted him in elections this year against Emmerson Mnangagwa, the temporary president who took over after Mugabe was ousted in November.
Mugabe’s thuggish regime responded to Tsvangirai’s decades of challenge by dismissing him as an uneducated “tea boy” peasant and then arresting him, beating him to a pulp, seeking to hang him as a traitor, and trying to throw him from the 10th-story window of an office building. Impressed by his resilience, and mindful of “keep your friends close but your enemies closer,” Mugabe invited Tsvangirai to afternoon tea every Monday.
Undeterred, Tsvangirai formed a political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999, which drew support from white farmers disenfranchised (to put it mildly) by Mugabe’s racist, Marxist “agrarian reforms.”
After an exceptionally violent election in 2008, Tsvangirai joined Mugabe as prime minister in a unity government that lasted until 2013. Even this achievement was bittersweet for the much-abused opposition leader, as his wife was killed in a car accident days after he was sworn in as prime minister. The unity government ended with Mugabe defeating a presidential challenge from Tsvangirai, and Tsvangirai accusing him of election fraud.
Figuratively and literally battered by years of opposition, the MDC suffered a schism in 2005 that thwarted Tsvangirai’s political aspirations. With Tsvangirai’s death, the party might have suffered a devastating blow, to the great advantage of Mugabe and Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF party. Mnangagwa, already favored to win the election, looks all but unbeatable now.
“It is sad for me to announce that we have lost our icon and fighter for democracy,” said MDC Deputy President Elias Mudzuri on Wednesday.
Mnangagwa paid tribute to Tsvangirai in a message of condolences to his family on Thursday, saluting his willingness to form a unity government after the brutal 2008 election and remembering him as a leader who “obdurately insisted on free, fair, credible and non-violent elections in his bid to strengthen the country’s democracy and re-engagement with the international community.”
“Whatever other controversial decisions he and his MDC-T party may have made in the past, we all remember him for his insistence on free, fair and peaceful elections which we must validate in the forthcoming 2018 Harmonized Elections in tribute to him and to our democracy. This we owe him as political leaders of all contesting parties in our country which deserves unfettered peace and stability,” Mnangagwa said.
Mnangagwa’s deputy Constantino Chiwenga added a tribute to Tsvangirai as a “great son of the soil,” which is very different from the way Zanu-PF portrayed him throughout most of his life.
Zanu-PF’s newfound reverence for its old nemesis proved to have its limits, as Mnangagwa replied “No, no, no!” when asked on Thursday if Tsvangirai would be afforded “national hero” status. A petition is nevertheless being circulated to oblige the government to bestow that honor upon Tsvangirai.