When Tsvangirai rose from working in a Zimbabwean mine to becoming the symbol of resistance, there were many who felt that there was finally hope for change in Zimbabwe.
After being a mine plant foreman for more than a decade, Tsvangirai climbed the unionist ladder until he was elected secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). Zimbabwe’s economic decline and workers’ plummeting living standards in the 1990s helped propel the ZCTU into an increasingly political formation, leading to the establishment of the MDC in 1999, led uncompomisingly at the time by Tsvangirai.
Following Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, Tsvangirai seemed to be on the verge of finally unseating Mugabe. He gained the most votes, but according to widely disputed official results, not enough to win outright. After months of negotiations, Tsvangirai was finally sworn in as prime minister of a power-sharing government in February 2009 in a move that was designed to rescue what remained of the collapsed Zimbabwean economy.
This deal allowed Mugabe to retain the powerful position of president and is what many now consider the beginning of the end for Tsvangirai’s political career. What followed was a complete circus. Tsvangirai was outmanoeuvred by Mugabe and his allies who humiliated him by reducing him to a puppet.
Despite being prime minister, the MDC leader wielded no real power.
Anyone who is seriously engaged in a struggle to remove a despot as ruthless and seasoned as Mugabe must be an exceptionally shrewd, courageous figure whose integrity is beyond question. Sadly, the MDC leader did not fit this mould. His image was tarnished by a litany of sex scandals, a weakness Mugabe exploited.
The ageing dictator sarcastically warned Zimbabweans against promiscuity at a rally. He told his compatriots to desist from sleeping around with many partners as this increased the spread of Aids. He joked that Zimbabweans should leave the sleeping around to Morgan Tsvangirai, “who knows it best.” This string of sex scandals contributed to Tsvangirai’s crushing defeat to Mugabe in last year’s polls and left him vulnerable to an internal rebellion by rivals within his own party, which saw its first splinter in 2005.
The embattled politician is now fighting expulsion from the party he founded. His opponents are a faction led by his former right-hand man, Tendai Biti. To his credit, Tsvangirai has done more than anyone in the history of Zimbabwean politics to force Mugabe to contend with serious opposition. This despite being assaulted, locked up and slapped with dubious charges including treason. The man has been endlessly threatened and demonised.
Tsvangirai, though, must surely be the first to admit that he has let down himself and the millions of Zimbabweans who saw in him someone who could free them from three decades of hell. He’s failed them hopelessly. He must now show wisdom and prove that he harbours no ambition to be an eternal opposition leader. The best he can do now is step down from his leadership position in the MDC and retire from politics.