Morgan Tsvangirai leaves mixed record as Zimbabwe's opposition struggles with succession

March 5, 2018
Morgan Tsvangirai.

When Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai succumbed to cancer on February 14, he left his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party in turmoil without an obvious successor.

Tributes are pouring in for this “hero of the nation”, according to Zimbabwe Standard. Its editorial said: “Tsvangirai is an undoubted hero whose commitment to democracy and human rights will inspire many generations to come.”

Brian Raftopoulos, a Zimbabwean academic and activist, said: “He was beaten, tortured, imprisoned, exiled and yet he still retained a real basic humanity and a wonderful sense of humour.”

Zimbabwean historian David Moore added: “No one in Zimbabwe’s sad history did more to challenge the fearful state created by Mugabe, than Tsvangirai.”

Morgan Tsvangirai came from a peasant family. For 10 years he was a mine worker, rising to become general secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in 1989. He helped form the MDC in 1999 in response to the deteriorating Zimbabwean economy and [then-president Robert] Mugabe’s inaction.

Despite Mugabe’s anti-imperialist rhetoric, he ended up bowing to International Monetary Fund pressure to “structurally adjust” the economy (ie: impose neoliberal measures) to obtain some debt relief.

Balancing act

Tsvangirai’s MDC was launched with a strong working-class base, but it became dependent on funders from Europe and the United States that wanted Mugabe gone. This led to a tight balancing act.

The party was supported by a contradictory mix including workers, students, intellectuals, white capitalists and Western powers. The left were initially active supporters. Munyaradzi Gwisai, a member of the far left International Socialist Organisation, was elected to parliament for the MDC in 2000.

However, Gwisai and other ISO members were expelled from the MDC a few years later when they criticised the growing influence of wealthy forcesin the party.

The party’s supporters are overwhelmingly urban. In the 2000 elections, the MDC won all seats in the two biggest cities of Harare and Bulawayo, with 70-80% of the vote in each.

Tsvangirai won the first round of the 2008 Zimbabwean presidential elections with 47.9% of the vote compared to Mugabe’s 43.2%.

But in the run-off election, Mugabe’s regime initiated a terror campaign. Many people were killed and injured, causing Tsvangirai to drop out and flee into exile before the second round out of fear of Mugabe’s state security forces. He sought exile in the Dutch embassy in South Africa — the Dutch having been major funders of his election campaign.

Power sharing

Subsequently, South African President Thabo Mbeki arranged a negotiated power-sharing arrangement for Zimbabwe. Mugabe remained president while Tsvangirai served as prime minister. This effectively neutralised Tsvangirai.

The arrangement ended with the 2013 presidential elections, which the MDC lost badly. The position of prime minister was abolished. The MDC was decimated in the 2013 elections. There was some intimidation of voters and vote rigging, but the result largely reflected popular opinion.

There were several reasons for this reversal. There was well-known MDC corruption in the municipal councils it controlled. There were also sex scandals involving Tsvangirai.

The main reason, though, was the accelerated IMF-driven austerity program dished out by the MDC’s Tendai Biti, who served as finance minister in the national unity government. His neoliberal policies of wage and job freezes, subsidy cuts and attacks on unions alienated MDC supporters.

With Tsvangirai gone, there are three main contenders for MDC leader: Nelson Chamisa, Elias Madzuri and Thokozani Khupe, all co-vice-presidents under Tsvangirai. Khupe claims she should become interim leader until the next congress appoints a new president, citing the MDC’s constitution. Chamisa, however, seized control of the party the day after Tsvangirai’s death with the backing of the MDC National Council, which he also says is in line with the constitution.

The next party congress is not due until 2019. Some in the party are reluctant to call an emergency congress before then, partly because the party cannot afford the estimated US$2 million cost of getting together the 5000 delegates.

Even at Tsvangirai’s funeral, MDC factions started brawling. According to the Zimbabwe Independent, one group of “thugs” threw stones and shouted insults at Khupe, declaring they did not want to be ruled by a woman or someone from the Matabele ethnic group. They were dispersed by other mourners.

National elections are due in July. If the MDC cannot peacefully solve its succession problem well before then, it has little chance of polling well.

With Tsvangirai gone, party unity — always difficult — will be harder to maintain. The fall of Mugabe, president since 1980, and the ascendance of Emmerson Mnangagwa will help the incumbent ZANU-PF party’s chances of retaining government.


What of the future, under either ZANU-PF or MDC? Foreign interests are supportive of Mnangagwa as president because he is more malleable than Mugabe. He has invited some displaced white farmers back, is hastening neoliberal policies, including privatisations, and is likely to reverse Mugabe’s black empowerment program to give more economic power back to corporations. The army has become more entrenched in government positions.

With the MDC’s dependence on foreign funds and its history of neoliberalism while sharing governmental power from 2009-13, it will not make much difference to the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans which party wins government in July.

Tsvangirai certainly tried to improve people’s lives. His former associate and friend Yash Tandon, an anti-imperialist Ugandan intellectual and activist who lived in exile for many years in Zimbabwe, described him as “an honest man overwhelmed by the maelstrom of Zimbabwean and imperial politics”.

When I was in Zimbabwe in June last year, many people asked me how they could emigrate to Australia. Four million Zimbabweans have already emigrated. I doubt if that will change, though at the moment, with Mugabe gone, people are still hopeful.

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