A powerful orator from humble beginnings, Morgan Tsvangirai was arguably Zimbabwe’s most popular politician and came within a whisker of unseating Robert Mugabe only to be outmanoeuvred and ultimately outlived by his long-time nemesis.
At the peak of his career, the self-taught son of a brick-layer served as Prime Minister to Mugabe’s presidency in a 2009-2013 unity government cobbled together after a disputed and violent election in which scores of his supporters were killed.
His presence helped stabilise an economy in freefall but Mugabe reneged on pledges to overhaul the former British colony’s partisan security forces and Tsvangirai was shunted back into his familiar role as opposition gadfly.
A hefty electoral defeat in 2013, blamed in part on Tsvangirai’s involvement in two sex scandals, put paid to his dreams of one day leading the southern African nation and three years later he revealed he was being treated for colon cancer.
He died yesterday aged 65, after 18 months of treatment in neighbouring South Africa.
Despite their rivalry, 93-year-old Mugabe harboured grudging respect for an opponent who suffered multiple abuses at the hands of security forces, including a police beating in 2007 that left him with deep gashes in his head.
During their time in power together, the two men developed an uneasy working relationship, squabbling frequently but also taking afternoon tea every Monday and even joking about their frequent head-butting.
“I’ve got my fair share of criticisms and also dealt back rights and lefts and upper cuts. But that’s the game,” Mugabe said on the eve of the 2013 vote, mimicking the movements of a boxer.
“Although we boxed each other, it’s not as hostile as before. It’s all over now. We can shake hands.”
In the coalition’s early days, Tsvangirai even said he found Mugabe to be “very accommodative, very charming”.
As a young man, Tsvangirai worked in a rural mine to support his family – he had six children with his first wife, Susan – and cut his political teeth in the labour movement as a mine foreman.
In 1988, he became full-time secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which broke ranks under his leadership with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, a bold step less than a decade after independence.
Tsvangirai led paralysing strikes against tax increases in 1997 and twice forced Mugabe to withdraw announced hikes, a rare setback for the former guerrilla leader who enjoyed almost total political control of Zimbabwe.
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