Morgan Tsvangirai: the man who dared Zimbabweans to dream again

Morgan Tsvangirai was a thorn in the side of Robert Mugabe’s government. Reuters/Peter Andrews

One never forgets their first job. For me it was not the work experience that left an indelible impression, though it was appreciated. It was that one day at work when all seems to be ordinary and then mundane, routine tasks are disrupted for just a few minutes and everything changes.

It was a hot summer’s day, the typical Harare heat burning us up. Hope was on the horizon; the type that brings storm clouds on a clear day to usher in rain. I worked until 4pm in a popular grocery store located in the affluent suburb of Chisipite. Unannounced, a burly stout imposing figure approached the till with a broad smile and distinctive round cheeks.

It was Morgan Tsvangirai himself.

A man of the people

We all knew who he was. A seasoned trade unionist, that face most often featured on newspapers’ front pages. A thorn in the side of Robert Mugabe and his regime, Tsvangirai was the man with whom Zimbabwe’s working class most identified. Many times when a stay-away was called and we didn’t go to school, this smiling customer had been the chief architect. To some, he was seen as a messiah.

Others saw him as little more than a rabble rouser and accused him of being the root cause of Zimbabwe’s economic decline and political hostility.

On that day, he was clad in his party t-shirt and holding a basket full of groceries. All the attention in the shop was centred on him. But Tsvangirai was a man of the people, and shifted that focus back to those around him. He engaged in small talk, bemoaned the lack of rain – the earth was dusty and thirsty for a drink, he said.

Approached by two mothers with suckling infants, he expressed his desire that the Zimbabwean health system would improve so that no child would ever have to die of malnutrition or another preventable ailment again.

He teased a young man in a Zimbabwe football t-shirt. Zimbabwe, Tsvangirai said, would qualify for the next soccer world cup.

As a young man doing his first job during that long hot summer, I gained more than work experience that day. I got life experience from a man who was not only simple but humane. There was a dissonance, too. This couldn’t be the same man the state told us brought sanctions and troubles to a country once viewed as Africa’s breadbasket. He’d even been blamed for keeping the rain from falling.

His parting shot to us that afternoon was sobering, and arresting. It challenged all the stereotypes and falsehoods that had been circulated as facts. Walking out, unaccompanied by bodyguards and fresh from chats with the many ordinary Zimbabweans in the store, he said:

Don’t be afraid of the idea of change. A new Zimbabwe is upon us and we need you.

A unique power

That was Morgan Tsvangirai’s unique power. He made Zimbabweans excited about the idea of change. Our ability to dream had been quashed. But he wasn’t afraid of this idea of change – he even had the bruises to show for it.

It is a hope and a dream he never let go of. Frail in his last days and consumed by cancer, Tsvangirai saw some of that change begin to unfold. It’s sad that he will not be around to experience the next steps on Zimbabwe’s journey. But his ability to make us dream will live on,even beyond his own life.

His legacy, ideologies, and simplicity carry the nation of Zimbabwe forward.