HARARE – President Emmerson Mnangagwa is under pressure to bestow the highest State honour on the late former prime minister and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who is being lauded for asserting Zimbabwe’s civic and political rights and giving a lifetime of service that will endure through generations.
Tsvangirai died on Wednesday after a one-and-half-year battle with cancer, ending 19 years of his leadership of the main opposition party, the MDC, which made the social-democrat leader a hero for the poor but a hate figure to his opponents.
A gifted orator, the 65-year-old had undergone over a dozen chemotherapy sessions in neighbouring South Africa for a cancer that was first detected in his colon in mid-2016.
News of his death has triggered calls for the MDC leader’s veneration for his immense contribution towards the democratisation agenda.
While Zimbabweans from all walks of life were in utter despair yesterday, many said they will find comfort if Mnangagwa awards the former trade unionist with the highest honour of national hero in recognition of his great work of revolutionary enterprise.
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), which became the springboard on which the MDC evolved, said Tsvangirai deserves the highest honour.
“There is a general consensus in the country that Tsvangirai is a national hero considering the work he did for the democratisation of Zimbabwe,” said Peter Mutasa, ZCTU president.
“All the work he did on the emancipation of labour in the country when he was the ZCTU secretary-general all point to what a real national hero is. So, in consultation with the family, we are considering engaging government to say to them this could be a starting point towards national healing. Here was an ordinary person who started from humble beginnings to work so hard his entire life for the good of the nation.”
Under the National Heroes Act, the president holds the discretion to declare national heroes.
Awards are made by the president upon the advice of a National Honours and Awards Committee in the ruling Zanu PF party.
Usually, the process of conferring heroes’ statuses is initiated at provincial level, and escalated through Zanu PF’s supreme decision-making organ, the politburo.
History has, however, recorded instances where the president made unilateral declarations.
Mnangagwa hinted in a statement released yesterday that he could honour Tsvangirai “for his readiness to stretch and reach out across the political divide for a Government of National Unity after the polarising 2008 elections.”
“As we join the Tsvangirai family in mourning their dear departed, we pray that the whole family remains united to give the deceased a dignified send-off. Consultations are underway in government and with the family to determine what else government needs to do to accord the late departed befitting honour. May his soul rest in eternal peace,” Mnangagwa said in a statement.
He described Tsvangirai as a strong trade-unionist and opposition leader.
At the time of going to print yesterday, there were suggestions that the Zanu PF Harare province could be asked to initiate the process of bestowing the national hero’s status on Tsvangirai.
The ruling party’s provincial chairperson for Harare, Goodwills Masimirembwa told the Daily News: “That’s a matter for the national leadership rather than a provincial organ. Of course, it’s sad that he has passed on. Condolences to his family.”
Businessman Mutumwa Mawere told the Daily News, Tsvangirai was indeed a national hero without question.
“He was a champion of workplace democracy before stepping into the political arena at a time when active citizenship carried with it so many risks. Imagine being forced to assert civic and political rights in a post-conflict and post-colonial dispensation.
“His life is clothed with so many experiences of what not to do in any democratic constitutional order. Imagine, the promise of independence being transformed into a living nightmare. Imagine dying in a foreign hospital because the opportunities to build viable and sustainable infrastructure was squandered by the very people who people looked up to and still believe that they alone have a better wisdom to deliver the promise of a better life,” the South Africa-based entrepreneur said.
Dewa Mavhinga, head of the Southern African unit of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Tsvangirai is a founding father of Zimbabwe’s democratic movement, and as such is a national hero, whether or not he is declared as such by the government.
“It would be fitting if he is conferred with national hero status, but I think he should be buried in Buhera, and not at the national shrine,” Mavhinga told the Daily News.
Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said Tsvangirai was an exceptionally courageous man.
“He personified the quest for democracy and the right of Zimbabwean people to choose their own leaders in open competition,” Chan told the Daily News.
“In that sense, he was a modern leader, not someone who thought that liberation almost 40 years ago gave an endless right to rule. I consider him a hero. I think the Zimbabwean people should insist he be named a national hero.”
Pedzisai Ruhanya, a post doctoral research fellow with the University of Johannesburg, told the Daily News that Tsvangirai captured the national imagination for three decades fighting for democratisation of Zimbabwean politics using peaceful means.
“With his national support base, he could have turned into a rebel leader if he was power hungry but he did not. He was involved in lawful and democratic resistance and never used his popularity to subvert the State. He is therefore a national hero whether he is recognised by the ruling elite or not.
“We have liberation heroes and democratic heroes. Tsvangirai legitimately represents the later in both theory and practice,” Ruhanya, who is also a media and democracy scholar, said.
Tsvangirai’s death also revived discourse over who qualifies for national hero status.
This comes as the national shrine has been demeaned by dubious characters that have been interred at the National Heroes Acre – which is supposed to embody the country’s heroic legacy during and after the 1970s war of liberation.
Veteran journalist, Nevanji Madanhire, said Zimbabweans have been conditioned to believe national heroes are declared and the gravitas of the declaring authority has never been adequately questioned.
“It shouldn’t be so; national heroes, as the term implies, should be determined by the unanimity of national gratitude for the role they played in the development of the country politically, economically or otherwise,” Madanhire told the Daily News.
“Morgan Tsvangirai has achieved this national confluence of thought regardless of what any cabal of self-anointed custodians of hero status criteria will adjudge.”
Tsvangirai was variously described yesterday as a lion of Zimbabwean history, an extraordinary man with an extraordinary career who had a voice of vision and reason and optimism, and a love for the people deserving of national hero status.
He overcame so much in the past – an assassination attempt when thugs in 1999 tried to throw him from the 10th floor office of his Chester House office at the then ZCTU headquarters in central Harare in a bid to stifle food riots; 2002 treason charges, a 2005 internal rebellion over the decision to participate in Senate elections that split his party, and an attempted coup that nearly toppled him from power after the 2013 polls.
With savvy use of media and the internet, and drawing on his unique emotional connection with the poor, Tsvangirai had a high chance of triumphing yet again if he had remained alive.
The former union leader, who was Zimbabwe’s prime minister in an uneasy coalition government with toppled despot Mugabe from 2009 until 2013, had become a household name and a symbol of resistance.
Yesterday, thousands of MDC supporters poured into the streets yesterday to mourn the death of Tsvangirai.
There was mourning in the capital city, with some writhing in pain at the MDC’s Harvest House headquarters in central Harare after losing the man who in the 2008 presidential election succeeded in beating Mugabe in a first round poll that sparked deadly violence which claimed over 200 MDC supporters, according to rights groups.
His death deprives the opposition of its principal figurehead, and his demise opens the way for a new elective congress that will test whether his MDC party can live on without his dominant personality at the helm.
Before his admission at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg in early January, Tsvangirai had stayed away from the public since he collapsed at an MDC Alliance meeting in Kadoma on September 8 last year.
Tsvangirai was last seen in public at Mtengwe building in Gokwe South on September 3, where he addressed an MDC Alliance rally.
His death has devastated millions of his supporters who adored his charismatic style, anti-establishment rhetoric and proposed economic revival with a specific focus on job creation, investment promotion and incomes distribution.
Detractors, however, especially toppled president Robert Mugabe, saw in him a “puppet” of former colonial power Britain and the United States, and accused the two Western nations and their ally Tsvangirai of using sanctions to undermine and sabotage Zimbabwe’s economy, which was plagued by inflation, high unemployment, and chronic food and fuel shortages.