HARARE (Reuters) - In a sea of red T-shirts, thousands of Zimbabweans bade farewell on Monday to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, whose death has opened divisions in his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party only months before elections.
Tsvangirai died on Feb. 14 aged 65 after a long battle with cancer and is due to be buried on Tuesday in his rural home of Buhera, 200 km (130 miles) southeast of Harare.
Party faithful converged on a square in downtown Harare to bid farewell to a man whose career was defined by his rivalry with long-time president Robert Mugabe, who was ousted in November.
“This is the People’s General, who led the poor, the workers and the youth since 1988. We grieve with hope that the army that the general built will finish the work that he started,” former MDC legislator Munyaradzi Gwisai told the crowd.
McHenry Venaani, the opposition leader in neighboring Namibia, described Tsvangirai as a “doyen of democratization of Africa” who had “started a journey of a thousand miles into immortality.”
In life, Tsvangirai and his supporters were beaten, humiliated and accused of treason. In death, the ruling ZANU-PF party has accorded Tsvangirai rare respect, including a military helicopter to transport his body to his rural home.
Supporters chanted MDC slogans, including a popular song calling Tsvangirai to lead because ZANU-PF, the only party Zimbabwe has known since independence from Britain in 1980, had failed.
“Tsvangirai did not discriminate. He loved everyone,” said 59-year-old grandmother Chioniso Mazivanhanga, who said she had known Tsvangirai as a mining union leader since 1976.
Behind the public outpouring of grief, however, senior MDC officials are at war over control of the party.
The election of Nelson Chamisa, 40, as acting president has angered a rival faction led by party vice presidents Elias Mudzuri and Thokozani Khupe, who are also bidding to succeed Tsvangirai.
Presidential, parliamentary and local elections are due within six months and without Tsvangirai, the MDC is in disarray, to the advantage of ZANU-PF and its new leader Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former deputy.
Some party officials have started talking about a special congress after Tsvangirai’s burial to resolve the leadership issue, which could weaken the party further.
Officials have been attacking each other in the press and on Monday, Chamisa supporters booed Mudzuri and Khupe.
In his main speech, Chamisa cautioned against internal fights and defended his selection as acting president as “perfectly constitutional”.
“This party is not for individuals in leadership. It belongs to the people,” said Chamisa, like Mnangagwa an ethnic Karanga and gifted orator who has been with the party since its formation in 1999.
“There can never be a genuine national hero without Morgan Tsvangirai. We are going to bury our leader in Buhera but it does not mean we are going to bury his ideals.”
Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Ed Cropley and Janet Lawrence