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The Zimbabwe Mail

Yash Tandon argues that the late Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, would be remembered as an enigmatic and emblematic figure for his relentless opposition to the ruling party power elite despite his tribulations. 

Fidel Castro’s aphorism: “A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past” fits the late Morgan Tsvangirai like a glove.  Morgan lived very much in the present, every moment of his life, and forever trying to bridge the huge gap in Zimbabwe’s past and the future.  But unlike Christ who was nailed on a cross at the end of his life, Morgan since he joined politics was forever on the cross. He was often imprisoned and brutalised by the state police and military mercenaries, and manipulated and used not only by Mugabe but also by his own colleagues within the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and by imperialist forces. Despite his tribulations, or because of them, he would be remembered as an enigmatic and emblematic figure for his relentless opposition to the ruling party power elite.

My memories of Morgan

I had known Morgan for nearly three decades – since the early days of Zimbabwe’s independence.  After nearly ten years as a mine-worker in Anglo America’s Nickel Mine, he emerged in the working class movement rising to become the General Secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) in 1989. It is around this time that Comrade S.D.R. Chifamba, General Secretary of the Commercial Workers Union of Zimbabwe, introduced me to Morgan, at the time still struggling to liberate the working class movement from the authoritarian grip of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

In 1982, I had gone to Zimbabwe as a political refugee from my own country, Uganda – then under President Obote following the heinous regime of Idi Amin, put in power by Britain and Israel working with disaffected groups within Uganda.  With Comrade Ibbo Mandaza, I helped create the Zimbabwe Institute of Development Studies (ZIDS). In 1983, I founded a research organisation of my own called Research and Consultancy (RESCON), and I began working mostly in the rural areas across the country – both with the farming communities and farm workers.  For many years I was closely associated with the Zimbabwe cooperative movement –the Organisation of Collective Cooperatives of Zimbabwe (OCCIZIM), and the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ).

In 1989, Morgan, as General Secretary of the ZCTU, selected four unions – the Commercial Workers’ Union, the Catering and Hotel Workers’ Union, the Furniture and Cabinet Workers’ Union, and the Educational, Scientific, Social and Cultural Workers Union – to undertake an in-depth study of the unions, with support from RESCON. The report of this research was published in 1991 under the title “Worker Consciousness and Unionism in Zimbabwe” edited by me and the late Gregory Peta, as a representative of the trade unions.  In a political by-line to the publication, Morgan wrote:

“This report is a mirror of the reality. If the reality is ugly you cannot blame the mirror for it. The report reflects the general labourer situation in the country. If the study was carried out a few years ago, it would have been premature. This is the right time to review our situation. If we need to break down the building, and start all over again let us do so. (Morgan Tsvangirai, 1 June1991)

The Report ended with some conclusions, and “The Way Forward”:

“A combination of both workplace battles and the fight against the effects of globalisation requires a strong Labour front which is not divided, be it on party lines or other forms. The struggle for socio-economic gains at the workplace should be systematically linked to issues of democracy and that basis should be used effectively to deal with the global forces. … The challenge lies with the workers to ensure that their struggles are not hijacked to benefit opportunistic and dogmatic interests. Economic struggles are inseparable from political issues, but the workers should always guard jealously against the interests being trampled on, at whatever platform and regardless of political affiliation. There is need to build a united and strong Labour front”. [[i]]

The four unions were a representative sample, and it was expected that future work would be undertaken with other unions. I was asked by Morgan to train union officials as researchers to undertake similar research in other constitutive unions of the ZCTU. Alas, for a complex of reasons, that never happened. One of these was the deteriorating political and economic environment in Zimbabwe.

Independence and the emergence of the MDC

Zimbabwe was created after a long guerrilla war between the forces of predation and plunder under the regime of Ian Smith (backed by the British), and the forces of liberation as a new nation. At independence on 18 April 1980, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe made a historic speech in which he famously said, “… It could never be a correct justification that because whites oppressed us yesterday when they had power, the blacks must oppress them today because they have power.” [[ii]]  

The new Zimbabwe had an air of optimism for the future, a future of progress denied to the people ever since it was colonised in 1888 by forces led by the arch-imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes.  It is a country rich in natural resources – fertile soil, gold, diamond, coal, iron and much else. 

Today, 38 years down the road, Zimbabwe and its people are in a sorry state.  The reasons for this are deep and complex – a blend of internal factionalism and ceaseless interference from external forces – mainly from the West. In the last days of Mugabe’s rule, his boots – as leader of ZANU-PF – had become too heavy for him and too painful for the ordinary people for whose liberation he had fought.

In 1989, Zimbabwe signed an agreement with International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan to bail the country out of a debt situation – created largely by a massive importation of machinery (including farm implements) to revolutionise the economy.  I knew Mugabe well enough to say that he was not a good economist. Nor did he fully appreciate that the IMF was simply an extended arm of the Empire, and though Zimbabwe became a member, it was necessary to deal with it at an arm’s length.  So, against better judgment of Ministers Nathan Shamuyarira and Fay Chung, Mugabe fell in line with Finance Minister, Chidzero.  The country was virtually handed over to the IMF, the World Bank and Western “donors” of so-called “aid”. This was “regime change”, now led by the Empire with Mugabe as its head of state!

In 2000, under pressure from the War Veterans Association, Mugabe fast-tracked the land reform. Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was at the heart of creating the land crisis in Zimbabwe, imposed sanctions. He also persuaded the USA and the European Union to impose a series of “targeted sanctions” against Zimbabwe. In 2013, former President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa claimed in an interview with Al-Jazeera that Blair had put pressure on him to help Britain overthrow Mugabe militarily.[[iii]

The land reform under the Land Acquisition Act of 1992 was the last revolutionary change in Zimbabwe. The reaction from the Empire was like hitting Zimbabweans with a sledge hammer.  As the neo-colonial economy catapulted under the sanctions, the opposition to ZANU-PF became louder. The ZCTU became a focal point of this opposition. In the evolving scenario of the decade of the 1990s, a whole array of political forces –from workers to civil society organisations and political opponents of ZANU-PF – joined hands to create the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). This was in 1999 – symbolically, the turnaround to a new century. Morgan became its president.

Rise and fall of Morgan Tsvangirai

I was involved – mostly on the sidelines – in the Movement.  Morgan and I had many talks on how the MDC could offer an alternative to ZANU-PF. I had supported the involvement of the ZCTU in the formation of the MDC, but I had strongly advised Morgan against assuming any official position in it. I argued with him that he had fought a hard battle to win political freedom for the unions from the clutches of ZANU-PF. It would be a mistake to lose it again within the vortex of a new political party. By then I knew Morgan well, and I feared that the ZCTU might lose its independence. I had several one-to-one meetings with him.  I read to him excerpts from our report on “Worker Consciousness and Unionism”, in which we had shown that the political consciousness of the working class was still very low, and it would take years of grassroots work to build a solid base for the ZCTU to make political impact. [[iv]] He, I told Morgan, had done a great job gaining ZCTU’s independence from ZANU-PF, and he must continue to stay with the grassroots. I reminded him that our Report (to which he had added a significant political statement) had ended with the words: “The challenge lies with the workers to ensure that their struggles are not hijacked to benefit opportunistic and dogmatic interests.”

This is exactly what happened. The MDC provided a fertile ground for political predators. And it was soon wrecked by internal bickering and splits.  The major split came in 2005 between a wing led by Tsvangirai (MDC-T) and its rival led by Arthur Mutambara  (MDC-M).  Gibson Sibanda (whom I knew well), was close to Morgan, but he split from him and joined MDC-M.  Worse, in my view, was the involvement of external forces mainly from imperial forces in Britain, Europe and the USA.  It is at the point when funds began to pour in from Europe and America to support the opposition, that I left the movement.  I no longer saw any future for the MDC, since it was clear that it had become an agent of imperial forces – even more loyal to the Empire than ZANU-PF.

The highpoint of Morgan’s political career was at the March 2008 presidential elections. With lavish funds from Europe (especially from the Dutch), he was able to launch a vigorous campaign, and he won the first round with 47.9 percent of the votes against Mugabe’s 43.2 percent. Since neither got the necessary 50 percent plus one vote, a run-off became necessary. Soon afterwards, Morgan took refuge in South Africa, and citing harassment by state security forces, he withdrew from the re-run of the presidential election. Instead, he sought refuge at the Dutch Embassy in Harare.

President Thabo Mbeki then mediated between Mugabe and the rival factions of the MDC, and they formed a joint government with ZANU-PF. Morgan assumed the position of Prime Minister under Mugabe’s presidency. But he was no match to Mugabe.

The rest, as they say, is history.  The unity government ended with the general election of 2013, which Mugabe won as president.  As for the office of Prime Minister, it was abolished under the 2013 Constitution.  Five years later, on 14 February 2018, Morgan died of cancer in South Africa.

History will remember Morgan Tsvangirai as an honest man who was overwhelmed by the maelstrom of not only Zimbabwean but also imperial politics.


* Professor Yash Tandon is from Uganda and has worked at many different levels as an academic, a teacher, a political thinker, a rural development worker, a civil society activist, and an institution builder. He was involved in the democratic struggles in Uganda and was member of the interim Uganda Parliament (1979-80).



[i] Tandon, Yash and Gregory Peta, (eds), Worker Consciousness and Unionism in Zimbabwe, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and SEATINI, 1991, 2003, p. 125

[iv] “Worker Consciousness and Unionism”, pp. 118-120