The political struggle for Zimbabwe became global, with Mugabe and Tsvangirai both winning support from rival international power blocs. In March 2007, pictures of a beaten and bloodied Tsvangirai helped to galvanize support for the MDC in the 2008 elections. But the disputed result and violent subsequent run-off between Tsvangirai and Mugabe led the regional community to push both men into a coalition government, with Tsvangirai as prime minister.
Despite continuous ructions, the Government of National Unity (GNU) held, and stabilized Zimbabwe's collapsed economy, until 2013. Although often politically out-manoeuvred by Mugabe, Tsvangirai deserves credit for getting the opposition a share of political power and for holding his nerve against many who wanted to collapse the GNU.
Tsvangirai was no saint; his complicated love life, and tacit approval of violent attacks on party dissenters, do him no credit. More importantly, the MDC neglected its grassroots supporters during the GNU, and paid the price in its comprehensive 2013 electoral defeat.
But although diminished, Tsvangirai remained Zimbabwe's most popular opposition politician, and the MDC’s new leaders will have quite a task ahead of them, even if they have been planning since his courageous 2016 public admission of colon cancer.
Nelson Chamisa, one of the three MDC vice presidents, has now been appointed as acting president by the party's national committee. Chamisa inherits a fractured and fractious party, and one which has also fallen out with the Tsvangirai family. The other two vice presidents, Thokozani Khupe and Elias Mudzuri, have also set their sights on party leadership.
At 40, Chamisa, an orator with grassroots appeal, has a huge task. With general elections due by July, he has to unite the party, counter Zimbabwe's rising ethno-politics, prove himself as leader of a broader opposition coalition and take on a resurgent President Emmerson Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF.
Electorally, the opposition's strongest card has always been the urban vote and the economy. But Mnangagwa has fast forwarded a comprehensive economic reform and internationalist agenda. This, and Mugabe's exit, have forced Chamisa, Joice Mujuru and other opposition leaders to play catch-up.
Zimbabwe's elections, the first since 2000 without Mugabe and Tsvangirai as contenders, will be of global interest as the country navigates the new political dynamics.
Morgan Tsvangirai's resilience earned him respect from friends and foes alike, with Zimbabwe's President Mnangagwa and Vice President Constantino Chiwenga visiting him at home a few weeks ago.
A former nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, Tsvangirai, popularly known by his totem of ‘Save’ and also called mudhara [the old man] deserves national hero status. He will certainly be remembered as the ‘people's champion’, and a pioneer in bridging the generational and ideological fissures that have shaped Southern Africa’s politics.
With their leader now gone, the turbulent MDC will undoubtedly be hoping for a ‘remembrance vote’ in his memory to carry them through the elections. But beyond that, his story offers a powerful example to a region in need of new political compromises.
By Knox Chitiyo- Chatham House.