In the wake of his death, many glowing words will be written and spoken about Morgan Tsvangirai. He deserves all of them. It is impossible to overstate the courage it took to stand up to Robert Mugabe’s regime – not for a moment, but for a lifetime. In doing so, he redefined Zimbabwe’s political space, and kept alive the values that the regime sought to crush: democracy, constitutionalism and respect for human rights.
But Tsvangirai also made mistakes, and we need to talk about those too. Not to criticise or condemn him – nobody’s perfect – but in order to confront the enormous challenges that now face the opposition. And to make sure they don’t happen again.
Perhaps his biggest mistake was his failure to anoint a successor. Ironically, Tsvangirai’s strategy of dealing with opponents within his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) echoed that of his nemesis, Mugabe. He was a master of divide-and-rule, playing factions off against each other in order to maintain tight control over party structures.
One consequence of this strategy is the plethora of smaller opposition parties, many of which are MDC offshoots, that exist today. This divides the opposition vote.
Another is the bitter, unedifying succession struggle within the MDC-T. At least three people – Nelson Chamisa, Elias Mudzuri, and Thokozani Khupe – are already laying claim to Tsvangirai’s mantle, but none can wholeheartedly claim Tsvangirai’s endorsement.
In refusing to deal with the succession issue, the former prime minister has taken much of his political capital with him to the grave. Now, Zimbabwe’s long-suffering opposition must rebuild, in time to contest a presidential election in a few months time – and they must do so without their biggest asset.
It’s a tall order for whoever does succeed Tsvangirai, especially given that Zanu-PF’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is riding a wave of goodwill generated by his role in removing Mugabe from office. But any opposition leader who does manage to pick up the pieces, and to take the electoral fight to the ruling party, will have proved themselves worthy of assuming Tsvangirai’s mantle.