The former trade union stalwart who posed the most formidable challenge to the ruling ZANU-PF party’s nearly four-decade hold on power, died on Wednesday in a South African hospital where he was being treated for colon cancer.
He was 65.
Zimbabwe’s new President Emmerson Mnangagwa lauded his party’s arch-rival as “a strong trade unionist and opposition leader” and vowed free elections in honour of Tsvangirai who was assaulted, jailed and humiliated under Mnangagwa’s predecessor Robert Mugabe.
“We remember him for his insistence on free, fair and peaceful elections which we must validate in the forthcoming (elections) in tribute to him and to our democracy,” Mnangagwa said.
“This we owe him as political leaders of all contesting parties in our country which deserves unfettered peace and stability,” he said, also adding that Tsvangirai’s funeral will be state-assisted.
Tsvangirai’s death firmly places Mnangagwa, the ZANU-PF veteran who took over after ousting long-time ruler Mugabe, on the path to victory in elections to be held before July.
Infighting over Tsvangirai’s successor is threatening to tear apart his opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party.
– Symbol of resistance –
MDC’s acting chairman Morgen Komichi said on Thursday that the party had appointed one of Tsvangirai’s three deputies, Nelson Chamisa, as acting leader for 12 months.
“We have lost a doyen of democracy, an icon… a crucial soldier,” Chamisa told hundreds of party supporters, speaking from a balcony at the party HQ in downtown Harare.
“We are just four months away from an election and we have lost a commander but what I can tell you is that we do not have a (leadership) crisis… We will win this election,” he vowed.
Dressed in the party’s trademark red, supporters cheered with some openly weeping as Chamisa addressed them.
The crowd filled the street, bringing traffic to a standstill, chanting songs praising Tsvangirai’s bravery and commitment to ending Mugabe’s stranglehold on power. Others drove around the city playing music in honour of the deceased opposition leader.
“He wanted us to win this election in 2018 and I hope the top leadership is going to unify and beat ZANU-PF. I know that is what he wanted, we do not want to damage his legacy,” Lilian Timveos, an MDC senator, told AFP.
“The nation has lost an icon. We have lost our father,” said Timveos, battling to hold back tears. “His legacy will live on forever.”
Mnangagwa said he will remember Tsvangirai “especially for his readiness to stretch and reach out across the political divide for a government of national unity after the polarising 2008 election”.
Hairdresser Batsirai Tambaoga said Tsvangirai’s death had dealt a blow to the opposition ahead of general elections.
“His death is a shattering blow especially with the elections coming soon,” Tambaoga said. “It will be difficult to fill the gap he has left.”
– ‘Fighting for what’s right’ –
Bookseller and party supporter Patrick Tasi said: “We have lost a hero. He stood firm and on the side of the people when the dictatorship was at its most dangerous.”
Tsvangirai “taught everyone about fighting on and soldiering for what is right,” according to Thandi Moyana, 25, an accountant in the city of Bulawayo.
The US State department saluted Tsvangirai’s “relentless struggle and great personal sacrifices for the equitable treatment of all Zimbabweans”.
Tsvangirai was beaten up by state security agents and incarcerated several times both as a trade union chief and opposition leader.
An image that remains etched in the minds of many is when he appeared in court wearing a torn shirt with a swollen eye and gash on his head after being beaten up for organising a prayer rally in 2007.
The following year he defeated Mugabe in the first round of general elections, barely missing the majority vote required to be declared the ultimate winner.
He was forced to pull out of the run-off election, citing a flare-up in violence which claimed the lives of at least 200 of his supporters.
In 2009 he went into a power-sharing government with Mugabe, serving as prime minister until elections in 2013.
Commenting on the legacy of Tsvangirai and Mugabe, and how their lives intersected, political scientist Takavafira Zhou from Masvingo State University said: “One became a symbol of the people’s struggle against oppression and the other came to represent tyranny after initially carrying the hopes of Zimbabwe.”