Tsvangirai, Morgan 1952(?)–

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Morgan Tsvangirai 1952(?)

Opposition leader

At a Glance

Life Endangered


In the late 1990s, Morgan Tsvangirai emerged as a surprisingly formidable political challenger inside Zimbabwe, a nation of 11 million in south central Africa. Once a miner, Tsvangirai headed the countrys largest trade union for a decade, but growing dissatisfaction in the country spurred the formation of a movement opposing Zimbabwes aging, autocratic president, Robert Mugabe. Tsvangirai was one of the founders of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and was formally elected its leader in the partys first conference in early 2000. In the spring of that year, a wave of politically-motivated violence swept through Zimbabwe, and Tsvangirainot for the first time in his lifebecame the target of a plan to silence him through official intimidation. He may yet follow in the proud African tradition of trade union leaders who become presidents, noted Anton La Guardia, Zimbabwe correspondent for the British Telegraph newspaper.

Tsvangirai was born in the early 1950s in what was then called Southern Rhodesia, and was the first of nine children in a poor rural family. At the time, Southern Rhodesia was a self-governing colony of the British empire. Over the course of the next decade, a black nationalist movement gathered strength inside Rhodesia, and began agitating for independence and black majority rule. Southern Rhodesia, however, was dominated politically and economically by English settlers with large agricultural land holdings, thanks to laws dating back to the early 1930s. As the independence movement grew, the white government became increasingly hostile to calls for the political enfranchisement of blacks. A white conservative prime minister, elected in 1964, led the country into a battle with the British crown, who supported the black nationalists. In 1965, Rhodesias white government declared its independence from the British crown, which the Queen and Parliament viewed as an act of rebellion.

Rhodesias declaration of independence brought scorn from the international community. In 1968 the United Nations Security Council voted, for the first time in its history, to impose economic sanctions on the country. In 1970, by the time Tsvangirai had left school while still an adolescent to work in the countrys rich nickel mines in order to support his family, Rhodesia had become a republic. However, political power remained in the hands of the former colonial settlers. A stalemate ensued, and a protracted guerrilla war against the Rhodesian government endured over the next decade.

At a Glance

Born c. 1952, in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Politics: Movement for Democratic Change.

Career. Miner in Zimbabwes nickel mines since the late 1960s; became active in miners union; elected secretary general of Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), 1988; elected president of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), January, 2000.

Addresses: Office c/o Embassy of Zimbabwe, 1608 New Hampshire Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20009.

Finally, in 1979, a settlement was reached after negotiations with guerrilla leaders Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe. Their two groups united to form the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and the country was re-named Zimbabwe.

Rhodesian blacks like Tsvangirai voted for the first time in February of 1980, and chose Mugabe as their president. The constitution, which had been ratified one year earlier, still allowed Zimbabwes white minority certain rights, especially regarding property ownership of the countrys most valuable acreage. Over the next decade, Mugabe consolidated political power, and forced out men like Nkomo who had become threats to his power. Violence and unrest occurred in the countryside during the 1980s, as widespread corruption, fuel shortages, inflation, and wage shrinkage kept most Zimbabweans mired in poverty.

Problems also arose among Zimbabwes tribal factions, especially in the area of Matabeleland, home to the smaller of Zimbabwes two main African ethnicities, the Ndebele. Related to the Zulu of South Africa, and in Zimbabwe only since the 1840s, the Ndebele make up about 16 percent of the population. A Ndebele opposition group fomented discord against the government, which was dominated by the Shona ethnic group. The Shona retaliated harshly, and earned condemnation from international human-rights organizations.

Tsvangirai spent ten years working in the nickel mines, and was an ardent ZANU-PF member in the early years of independence. He even served as a political commissar for the party at his workplace. However, Mugabe became increasingly despotic and many Zimbabweans grew resentful. Although elections were generally fair, the Mugabe government possessed total control over the newspapers and television stations. This left very few means by which opposition parties could get their message across. ZANU-PF politicians held nearly all of the seats in Zimbabwes legislative body, the House of Assembly.

Life Endangered

By 1988, after having risen through the ranks of the organized labor movement, Tsvangirai was elected secretary-general of Zimbabwes largest coalition of trade unions, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). Rejecting the dominance of ZANU-PF, Tsvangirai and other union leaders focused their energies on making the well-structured union movement a voice for political power. With 700,000 members, the ZCTU became a formidable foe of the Mugabe government. In 1989, Tsvangirai was jailed for a few weeks by the governmentwhose human-rights abuses had continued to earn international scornafter being accused of spying on behalf of South Africa.

A few years later, Tsvangirai began leading strikes against harsh government measures, such as punitive tax hikes and price increases. In December of 1997, he organized a successful anti-tax protestthe Mugabe administration had planned to increase revenues in order to fund pensions for veterans of Zimbabwes guerrilla war for independence in the 1970sand a few days later, was attacked in his ZCTU office by unknown thugs. He was severely beaten, and his assailants even attempted to throw him out of the tenth-story window.

These tactics did not deter Tsvangirai or the rest of the ZCTU leadership, however, and they continued to organize strikes throughout 1998. The movement gained strength, in part, because of the dire situation within Zimbabwe: unemployment hovered at 50 percent, and nearly 2,000 Zimbabweans died from AIDS each week. In late 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change was founded, and at its first national congress, Tsvangirai was chosen to head the opposition party on January 30, 2000. As a crowd of 4,000 people chanted Chinja, or change, Tsvangirai affirmed the MDCs intention to loosen the ZANU-PFs stranglehold on the country. I hope they disappear into the dustbin of history, because their betrayal of this country has been a treasonable offence, Tsvangirai was quoted as saying, according to David Blair of the British Telegraph newspaper. The journalist also reported that a delegate to the congress declared to him, Tsvangirai is the only one who can save us from this government.

In a nationwide referendum held in February of 2000, Mugabe suffered a clear defeat when voters rejected his proposed constitutional changes. The plan would have expanded his presidential powers, and allowed the seizure of land from white farmers without compensation. A powerful group of war veterans had clamored for increased land ownership, and found support for their cause with the Mugabe government. Grappling with political and economic crises and falling popularity ahead of parliamentary elections next month, the government has been accused by critics of using land redistribution to win votes among poor blacks and thus fanning racial and political animosities, explained New York Timess journalist Henri E. Cauvin.

The MDC opposed the land-seizure plan, and won support from the economically powerful white farmers. The majority of the countrys commercial farmsabout 4,500 in allwere white-owned, and occupied the most fertile land in country. This small minority, however, also played an important role in Zimbabwes economy, since the tobacco and cotton exports from such farms bring in much-needed hard currency. Tsvangirai noted that the economic situation in Zimbabwe was so dismal that the land-for-veterans issue was irrelevant. Poverty, unemployment, debt problems, and corruption have a terrible effect on the standard of living of 75 percent of the people, he told the New York Times s Jane Perlez. When you talk of land in that sea of poverty its meaningless. What does land do if you havent got a meal?

The rejection of the February referendum gave Mugabe his first electoral defeat since 1980, and the MDC geared up to win support for their candidates in upcoming parliamentary elections that were originally scheduled for May of 2000. Increases in voter registration, however, made the Mugabe government wary, and thousands began flocking to MDC rallies. White farmers gave financial support to the MDC, an alliance that was called the first real reconciliation of blacks and whites in Zimbabwe since the independence era two decades earlier.

In April of 2000, squatters organized by the veterans groups began occupying white-owned farms, and deadly skirmishes resulted. Nearly all of those killed were blacks who supported the MDC, however. The car of two MDC supporters was firebombed, killing two, and other members of the MDC died under mysterious circumstances, including Tsvangirais own driver. After an independent newspaper in Harare, the capital city, described the deaths as politically motivated, its offices were firebombed. It was feared that the civil unrest would lead to a declaration of a state of emergency and then rule by decree, which would mean that the parliamentary elections could be indefinitely postponed.

Tsvangirai visited Washington D.C. to ask for help in mid-April of 2000, and made it clear that he and the MDC hoped for a peaceful end to the conflict, not outright warfare with Mugabe. As much as I would like to take an aggressive stand, thats what hes looking for, Tsvangirai told the New York Timess Perlez. Hes looking to be made a martyr. By early May, 13 Zimbabweans had died, and 1,100 white-owned farms had been occupied by force. Tsvangirai spoke that week at a large rally outside Harare, and urged MDC followers to keep a low profile, to feign support for the Mugabe government as long as on voting day your X is for the MDC, Tsvangirai said, according to an Associated Press report that appeared in the New York Times.


New York Times, April 3, 2000; April 19, 2000; April 20, 2000; April 30, 2000; May 2, 2000.

Telegraph (U.K.), January 31, 2000; February 16, 2000; May 14, 2000.


Additional information for this profile was provided by the United States Department of State web site at http://www.state.gov

Carol Brennan