The death of Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was announced on the 14th of February. Throughout his political career, Tsvangirai was known as the primary adversary of the authoritarian Mugabe government.
After Mugabe’s resignation late, last year and Tsvangirai’s passing, Zimbabwe’s future is uncertain.
Zimbabwe is a Presidential republic located in Southern Africa. Known as “Southern Rhodesia” under British rule, the colony was dissolved in 1963 and democracy was introduced to the state. A White minority government remained in power for two decades while a civil war ensued. Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union along with the Zimbabwe African People’s Union were the two main groups fighting against the government; both groups shared communist ideologies.
Mugabe became the country’s first black president in 1980. Despite his initial popularity, Mugabe remains a deeply divisive figure in African politics. He is still hailed as a hero for fighting against imperialism and white minority rule. He has also been derided as a dictator responsible for economic mismanagement, widespread corruption, anti-white racial discrimination, human rights abuses, suppression of political critics, and crimes against humanity.
In November 2017, Former Vice President of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, alleged that President Robert Mugabe had threatened his life. Shortly after, the country’s army commander Constantino Chiwenga threatened military action if purges against former war liberation fighters did not cease. Soldiers took over the headquarters of the state broadcaster ZBC and blocked access to government offices.
Mugabe was consequently forced to resign, marking the end of his 37-year rule. He was succeeded by Former Vice President Mnangagwa.
Morgan Tsvangirai was Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader and one of the country’s most popular politicians. He founded the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999. Tsvangirai died in Johannesburg on Wednesday. He had spent the past year and a half getting treatment for cancer in South Africa.
MDC Vice President Elias Mudzuri announced his death on twitter. “It is sad for me to announce that we have lost our icon and fighter for democracy,” he wrote. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, the party and the nation at this hour.”
Fellow founder of the MDC David Coltart described Tsvangirai as “One of the giants of the long struggle to bring democracy to Zimbabwe”. Meanwhile independent MP Mliswa said, “He was a true democrat who fearlessly stood up to the Mugabe regime and was an inspiration to many.”
Tsvangirai’s politics were fundamentally defined by his long-standing rivalry with Mugabe. Coming from a humble background, Tsvangirai’s political roots were in the labour movement. He was the secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions from 1988 to 1999. During this period, he led multiple strikes against President Mugabe’s policies, some of which were successful in their demands.
After the MDC was founded in 1999, the party soon became Mugabe’s most formidable opposition, winning polls and multiple seats in parliament. Tsvangirai was arrested numerous times over the years, facing violence and brutality from the ruling administration. He came close to overthrowing Mugabe in the 2008 elections, after the MDC winning in parliament. However, after approximately 200 of his supporters were killed, he withdrew from the Presidential elections.
Consequently, from 2009-2013, Tsvangirai served as Prime Minister in a coalition with Mugabe’s government. He lost the following 2013 elections, which he alleged were rigged.
Tsvangirai’s illness was announced in 2016, and the MDC has seen internal discord since, with multiple party leaders angling to be successor. Several observers have expressed concerns that Tsvangirai’s passing will lead to a further split in the party. Others, such as Nehanda Radio editor Lance Guma believe that the upcoming elections will be a serious challenge. “Finding someone new and trying to build their profile within the country within a space of four months is going to be a mammoth task,” he said.
However, International Crisis Group’s Zimbabwe analyst Piers Pigou thought differently. “Tsvangirai’s death will force the MDC to convene an emergency conference to sort out the differences between the three vice-leaders. His sickness meant an impasse around internal dynamics, so this might force a resolution. That’s a possible silver lining to this tragic event,” he told The Guardian on Wednesday. Pigou noted that the opposition’s main challenge will be to find someone to play the “central role” of presidential candidate.
As stated in a previous article, we believe that the Zimbabwean economy is currently in a perilous situation. With Tsvangirai’s passing and the lack of an obvious successor, it is not likely that the opposition will win elections this year. Although there has been speculation that Mnangagwa may follow in Mugabe’s footsteps, it is yet uncertain what his leadership would mean for the nation. The country’s future is ambiguous.
However, it is clear that with Tsvangirai’s death, the Zimbabwean democracy has lost a vital leader.