Anyone who ever stood up for principle and paid for it in pain will mourn the passing of Morgan Tsvangirai, the man who never wanted to be president but wore himself out trying on behalf of his suffering people.
Tsvangirai, who succumbed to colon cancer in a Johannesburg hospital on February 14, never wanted the power that many leaders in Africa crave. His heart was in his humble rural roots in Buhera in eastern Zimbabwe – where he was born the eldest of nine children to a miner – and in the trade union movement. Tsvangirai followed his father down the mine and when independence came, in 1980, he joined the ruling party, Zanu-PF, and rose swiftly through the ranks becoming a staunch supporter of President Robert Mugabe. History is littered with such ironies.
It was as head of the mighty Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions that Tsvangirai enjoyed his annus mirabilis at the head of hundreds of thousands of workers. With his trademark cowboy hat, he could hold a crowd with fiery oratory and hold a strike in place against the odds. With a handful of faxes he could close the country down, which he did in 1997 and 1998 with mass stay-aways as economic hard times and President Mugabe’s indifference hurt the people.
It was this skill that led him up the greasy pole of politics; yet, even in his pomp you could tell that he didn’t want to.
One hot afternoon, in 1998, amid a spate of strikes, my TV crew and I received a frantic call from Tsvangirai’s office for us to come and save him. By this time, he had raised the ire of thugs loyal to Zanu-PF, calling themselves war veterans, who stormed his office and tried to throw him out of a third-floor window. Tsvangirai asked his secretary to call us instead of the police because, sadly, in the politically charged atmosphere, he didn’t trust them.
Luckily, as we arrived, the thugs fled. As we calmed Tsvangirai down, I asked him why he didn’t go ahead and run for president as he had the power of the workers at his elbow.
“No, Chris, if you run for president even your grandchildren will be persecuted,” said Tsvangirai.
And so it turned out. Activists shepherded Tsvangirai into forming the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), setting into motion years of vilification, intimidation and abuse that left him battered and bloody in mind and body. Tsvangirai tried to keep his feet on the ground through his stable home life. In the early days he used to hold press conferences in his front garden where his charming wife, Susan, who died tragically in a car accident in 2009, used to bring us tea with a smile.
Yet, worse times came after tea. Tsvangirai, egged on by the west, became the world’s champion against the growing horror of Mugabe and paid for it by being arrested, beaten and charged with treason. Even the Mugabe-leaning judges in Harare dismissed the trumped-up charges.
Undoubtedly Tsvangirai won the presidential elections against Mugabe in 2008, but the conniving election authorities refused to release the results. Thus stolen election led to a power-sharing agreement, the following year, under which Tsvangirai became a pretty much powerless deputy president. He was never to reach the top spot not that, deep down, it really bothered him.
Those who had stood against the bullies and suffered may prefer to remember Tsvangirai by another tale related by one of my colleagues in Zimbabwe.
A top level delegation of MDC officials had gone to see their political counterparts in Zambia. Zanu-PF apparatchiks in Harare lent on the Zambian government to deport them and the MDC group ended up stranded and angry under a tree, with phones with flat batteries, on the Zimbabwe side of the Chirundu border. Tsvangirai’s colleagues attacked their leader under the branches of the tree.
“What is the point of this political movement?” says one.
Tsvangirai seized the moment and ordered his empty-pocketed colleagues to sing as they marched to a village a few kilometers away. A few hours later, villagers were surprised to see Tsvangirai, in full voice, walking into their village at the head of a phalanx of suited comrades. A cell phone in the village summoned transport and they drove home in good spirits.
A fleeting taste of the leadership that Zimbabwe was destined to never see.