Morgan Tsvangirai; fought to free Zimbabwe from dictator

Mr. Tsvangirai served as prime minister in Zimbabwe for four years.
Mr. Tsvangirai served as prime minister in Zimbabwe for four years.Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images/File 2013

WASHINGTON — Morgan Tsvangirai, once an impoverished Zimbabwean nickel miner who became a charismatic union leader, pro-democracy activist, and eventually the country’s embattled prime minister under a 2008 power-sharing agreement with his longtime foe, Robert Mugabe, died Wednesday. He was 65.

Elias Mudzuri, a vice president of Mr. Tsvangirai’s political party, announced the death on Twitter but did not provide additional details. Mr. Tsvangirai was being treated for colon cancer at a hospital in South Africa, according to Zimbabwean news outlets.

For nearly two decades, Mr. Tsvangirai (pronounced chang-girr-EYE) was the heavy-set, baritone-voiced embodiment of Zimbabwe’s opposition movement. Sporting a weathered ox-hide jacket and steel-toed work boots and driving a beat-up Mazda to political rallies, he maintained a working-class persona that veered sharply from that of Mugabe, a former Marxist revolutionary who favored well-tailored suits and a cavalcade fit for a king.


As the founding leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, the country’s leading opposition party, Mr. Tsvangirai oversaw what at times seemed to be a suicidal effort to oust Mugabe, an autocrat who ruled the country for 37 years.

Soldiers whipped Mr. Tsvangirai with belts, prosecutors charged him with treason and plotting to assassinate the president (he was acquitted but could have been sentenced to death), and assassins tried to take his life at least three times, including during a 1997 attempt when he was nearly thrown out the window of his 10th-story office.

‘‘I will soldier on until Zimbabwe is free,’’ he wrote in 2007, after he was arrested for attending an antigovernment prayer-group meeting and released with a broken arm and bloodied scalp. ‘‘Far from killing my spirit, the scars they brutally inflicted on me have reenergized me. I seek no martyrdom. I only seek a new dispensation in my country in which citizens live freely in prosperity and not fear in their rulers.’’


Mr. Tsvangirai served as prime minister for four years under the power-sharing agreement. Mugabe, who remained as president, consistently outmaneuvered his political rival and proclaimed that ‘‘only God will remove me.’’ The 93-year-old leader was finally ousted last November, after he fired his vice president and was subsequently placed under house arrest by the military and pressured to resign.

At the time, an ailing Mr. Tsvangirai said he hoped the resignation would put Zimbabwe on a ‘‘new trajectory,’’ with free and fair elections and a younger generation of political leaders. Mugabe’s successor, former security minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, has said he will hold presidential elections this year.

Such elections would mark the culmination of a long-standing dream for Mr. Tsvangirai.

The son of a bricklayer, Morgan Richard Tsvangirai was born in Gutu, in what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, on March 10, 1952. He dropped out of school as a teenager to support his eight younger siblings, working at a textile factory and then at the mines during the reign of white supremacist Ian Smith, who had unilaterally declared Rhodesia’s independence from England in 1965.

Like many young black men of his era, he said that in his adolescence he was ‘‘prepared to die’’ for Mugabe, a national hero whose guerrilla warfare tactics helped the newly named Zimbabwe achieve black majority rule in 1980.

The country was then considered one of the most promising nations in southern Africa, with strong mining industries and agriculture that made it a breadbasket for the region. It has since suffered widespread famine, rampant unemployment, epidemics of malaria and AIDS, and — in the 1980s — military massacres of civilians that contributed to Mr. Tsvangirai’s decision to distance himself from the ruling party.


Mr. Tsvangirai worked his way through the union ranks and was elected secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in 1988. The position made him the leader of the country’s largest labor federation and launched him to national prominence as he organized strikes that successfully derailed a tax increase proposed by Mugabe. He went on to chair the National Constitutional Assembly, a group that aimed to remake the country’s constitution, before forming the Movement for Democratic Change in 1999.

Mr. Tsvangirai ran three times for president and nearly succeeded in 2008, amid an economic crisis in which hyperinflation led the government to print a 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar note. Though Mr. Tsvangirai won the most votes, the government said he failed to receive a majority, spurring a runoff election marked by widespread violence. National security forces reportedly killed at least 85 of Mr. Tsvangirai’s supporters and maimed thousands more with iron bars, guns, and machetes.

Fearing prolonged violence, Mr. Tsvangirai dropped out of the race, calling it an ‘‘illegitimate sham of an election process’’ and an ‘‘orgy of violence.’’ The decision angered supporters who said he was betraying those who died in support of his cause. But it helped prompt a political intervention by South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, who drafted the power-sharing arrangement that made Mr. Tsvangirai prime minister.


For Mr. Tsvangirai, the deal began in personal tragedy and ended in political failure. Days after he was sworn in, his wife of 31 years, the former Susan Mhundwa, was killed in a car crash. The head-on collision was rumored to be a botched attempt to assassinate Mr. Tsvangirai, who was injured.

The unity government he helped lead stemmed the country’s inflation, replacing the Zimbabwean dollar with American greenbacks and other foreign currency. But Mr. Tsvangirai was unable to institute substantial reforms of the country’s military and became enmeshed in controversy over his romantic life.

Several women came forward to say they were having affairs with Mr. Tsvangirai, including one who reached a settlement with him to support a child she said was his.