Many in Zimbabwe are in mourning following the death of Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, former prime minister and leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party. Tsvangirai, age 65, succumbed to colon cancer at a South African hospital yesterday.
A former trade unionist, Tsvangirai was the face of Zimbabwe’s democracy struggle against the repressive rule of then-president Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. I first met and worked with Tsvangirai during his union days in 1997-98, when we formed the National Constitutional Assembly to push for constitutional reforms. Like many Zimbabweans, I cherished Tsvangirai’s selflessness and unflinching courage to challenge a government that unleashed violence against opponents who dared imagine a better Zimbabwe with basic freedoms and respect for human rights. He gave a voice to many.
A few months before his passing, when Mugabe was ousted in a military coup and replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa as president, Tsvangirai urged the new government to create a conducive environment for holding credible, free, and fair elections this year. Since forming the MDC party in 1999, Tsvangirai led it to numerous elections. ZANU-PF and Zimbabwe’s military responded with waves of violence against his supporters.
Political violence was especially severe during the 2008 elections, when Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential vote. As the parties prepared for the presidential runoff election, the military engaged in killings, torture, and arson targeting mostly Tsvangirai’s supporters. More than 200 people were killed, 5,000 beaten and tortured, and 36,000 displaced. The violence compelled Tsvangirai to pull out of the election, leaving Mugabe in a one-man race whose outcome was nonetheless widely disputed. Tsvangirai became prime minister in the subsequent government of national unity from 2009 to 2013.
Domestic and international observers credited Tsvangirai and his colleagues in the opposition with improving Zimbabwe’s devastated economy, but the MDC had little power in the coalition government to push for critical human rights and governance reforms.
The sun has set on an icon of Zimbabwe’s struggle for democracy and human rights, and Tsvangirai leaves behind a legacy of courage and personal sacrifice. It is now left to others to continue his unfinished struggle. May his soul rest in peace.