Edgar Tekere (74), one of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle icons and a founding member of Zanu-PF, died this week after a two-year battle with prostate cancer.
His death is certain to be a litmus test for Zanu-PF, which repeatedly crossed swords with the veteran nationalist and is now struggling over how it should acknowledge him.
Tekere’s political career, which spanned four decades, involved imprisonment under Ian Smith’s Rhodesian government in 1957 in the Gonakudzingwa prison camp and in 1964 in the HwaHwa state prison.
He played an instrumental role in kick-starting the liberation war from Mozambique, was a member of the Lancaster House Conference delegation in 1980 and served as a Cabinet minister after independence.
But his murder of a white farmer, Gerald Adams, in 1980 led to a controversial trial and his anti-government rhetoric, slamming both President Robert Mugabe’s attempts to create a one-party state in Zimbabwe and the growing corruption in Zanu-PF, stirred up controversy.
In 1988 he was fired from Zanu-PF but he emerged two years later as the founder and leader of the Zimbabwe Unity Movement party and faced off with Mugabe in the 1990 presidential elections.
Although he lost the election, Tekere continued to be a dominant player in the country’s political scene well into the new millennium and remained an outspoken critic of Mugabe and Zanu-PF structures.
After his readmission to Zanu-PF in 2005 he was regarded as closely aligned to the Simba Makoni-led faction of the party. His political clout within Zanu-PF even then was still covertly acknowledged by Mugabe sympathisers. A prerequisite for Tekere’s readmission was that he could not hold a leadership position within Zanu-PF for five years.
Despite this, the following year the ambitious Tekere, accustomed to the life of a leader, declared his wish to contest a senatorial seat. But Zanu-PF hawks, afraid of a revival of his political career, swiftly blocked his efforts and denounced his candidacy.
In 2007 the release of his autobiography, A Lifetime of Struggle, stoked fresh controversy. He claimed that he personally aided Mugabe’s ascendancy to the leadership of Zanu-PF. He also criticised Mugabe for being cold, hard-hearted and manipulative and pointed to this as the central pivot of the president’s continued stay in power.
The outspoken Tekere, nicknamed “Twoboy”, announced in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections that he had “appointed himself the principal campaigner for Mugabe’s downfall” and endorsed Makoni’s candidature.
Tekere’s appeal overlapped political party lines, which saw him invited to the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 2009. To many Zimbabweans he was also the man who brought Bob Marley to the country for his memorable independence celebration concert and helped to unite a divided country.
Reacting to the news of his death, Didymus Mutasa, the Zanu-PF secretary for administration, described it as a “national loss”, although he did not say whether the late nationalist would be buried at Heroes’ Acre.
“It’s too early for us to say much about his hero’s status because that must come from his provincial leadership and after consultations with his family. “Everything will be announced in due course,” he said. But other political parties have been quick to confer hero status on Tekere and to support his burial at the national shrine.
Douglas Mwonzora, the spokesperson for the MDC, said: “He sacrificed personal comfort for the greater good of the people of Zimbabwe and he deserves to be accorded national hero status.”
Dumiso Dabengwa, the Zapu president and also a veteran nationalist, recalled Tekere as a “wise man from the east”, saying: “I have no doubt that he is a hero and he takes the top marks among those who participated in the liberation struggle.”
Zimbabwe’s private daily newspapers, NewsDay and the Daily News, both declared Tekere a hero — an apparent dig at Zanu-PF’s dilly-dallying over his status. But in recent years the late Tekere himself said he did not want to be buried “among thieves and killers” at Heroes’ Acre.
Earlier this year Mugabe declared that the national shrine was for Zanu-PF members only, which led to an outcry by the MDC and civil society.