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Tsvangirai leaves an important political legacy in Southern Africa

The death of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai is a loss for Zimbabwe. In nearly three decades of speaking truth to power, Tsvangirai helped to change his nation and the region.

His death marks a period of transition for regional governments and opposition parties alike. The Zuma era has ended in South Africa while Mozambique, Namibia and Angola have also seen political transitions, pushing modernization agendas to appeal to young citizenries that increasingly see politics in separate terms from the liberationist struggles of the previous generation.

Regional opposition movements also face winds of change: the longstanding opposition leader in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Etienne Tshekedi, passed away in 2017, and Mozambique’s Afonso Dhlakama and Kenya's Raila Odinga are both aging. These movements similarly need to appeal to a younger audience or risk losing relevance.

Tsvangirai’s career is an eloquent illustration of these challenges. Born in Buhera in rural eastern Zimbabwe, Tsvangirai worked in textiles and mining before politics – diverse experience which gave him crucial exposure to the lives of ordinary people across the country.

In his early years, he also worked for ZANU-PF, before leaving to forge his own political path. He became increasingly active in mining politics, rising to the executive of the National Mineworker's Union and, in 1989, to secretary-general of the powerful Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

In the late 1990's, Zimbabwe was riven by questions over land, war veterans, the Congo conflict, a shrinking economy and growing doubts about ZANU-PF itself.

Opposition leaders of the time could not answer them; those such as Edgar Tekere and Margaret Dongo struggled to win support beyond their local constituencies, and liberation leader Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU had been merged with ZANU-PF in the 1987 Unity Accord.

But in 2000, Zimbabwe's ‘perfect storm’ of a divisive constitutional referendum, land redistribution and a June election made Tsvangirai and the newly minted MDC, formed in 1999, a national rival to ZANU-PF.

Through subsequent national elections in 2002, 2005, 2008 and 2013, Zimbabwe remained polarized between competing visions of Zimbabwe future: ZANU-PF's powerful black liberationist politics of identity and the opposition's equally compelling liberal democracy agenda.

Tsvangirai's achievement was to provide a credible alternative to liberation icon Robert Mugabe. Tsvangirai also resuscitated Zimbabwe's tradition of urban nationalism, and was a successor to Benjamin Burombo and other mid-century Zimbabwean urban leaders. Tsvangirai would in turn be a touchstone for contemporary urban activists Evans Mawarire, Linda Masarira and others.

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