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Alex Magaisa’s remarkable legacy: obituary

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Lawyer and key adviser to Morgan Tsvangirai who helped draft Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution

NIC CHEESEMAN

THE lawyer and intellectual Alex Magaisa, who has died aged 46 of a heart attack after a long period of illness, was a key adviser to Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party during a crucial period in Zimbabwe’s political history.

After the country’s disputed presidential elections of 2008, when Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF party were forced to accept a power-sharing government with Tsvangirai as prime minister, a parliamentary committee was established to revise the country’s outdated and authoritarian constitution. In 2011 Magaisa travelled from the University of Kent, where he was a law lecturer, to join the technical team advising that committee.

The constitutional review process was as fraught as it was important. Although negotiations took place against a backdrop of harassment, as depicted in the 2014 documentary Democrats, a new constitution was approved in 2013 that, while limited, promised to improve women’s rights, ban torture and guarantee freedom of expression. However, the refusal of Mugabe to respect the constitution, and the continued state repression under his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, mean that these gains have yet to be realised in practice, which is one reason why Magaisa never stopped campaigning for further legal and political change.

By the time of the 2013 general elections Magaisa was serving as chief adviser – effectively chief of staff – to Tsvangirai. When the polls, which the MDC claimed were undermined by a flawed and vastly inflated electoral register, intimidation by Zanu-PF and censorship of independent media, were won by Mugabe’s party, Magaisa formed part of the MDC legal team that challenged the result in court. The petition was unsuccessful, in part because the judges were appointed by Mugabe and generally favoured the ruling party, and the MDC moved back into opposition.

Magaisa returned to Kent, but continued to visit Zimbabwe regularly and emerged as an influential commentator on the country’s politics. His erudite blog, the Big Saturday Read (BSR), filled the vacuum left by a heavily censored and polarised media. With almost 500 000 Twitter followers, he had more online devotees than the country’s main newspapers.

Born in what is now the Chikomba district of Zimbabwe, to Seddy (nee Makwinja) and Phillip Magaisa, Alex boarded at St Francis of Assisi high school in the Mashonaland East province. After taking a law degree at the University of Zimbabwe, graduating in 1997, he joined the law firm Gill, Godlonton & Gerrans as an associate, working on litigation. In 1999, he moved to the UK, to begin a PhD in law at the University of Warwick, which he finished in 2003. In 2007 he joined the University of Kent, and established himself as an expert on company and intellectual property law, Zimbabwean constitutional practice and land law.

Following his time with Tsvangirai, Magaisa moved away from the political frontline, and his wider influence blossomed.

He had already been a columnist for the Daily News newspaper from 2010 to 2012, and his BSR commentaries on Zimbabwean politics combined rigour with an ability to communicate academic insights to a mass audience.

The elegance of his prose and his willingness to speak truth to power made him the most respected political commentator in Zimbabwe, but this honest bravery could be dangerous. In 2020, Magaisa’s BSR publicised and analysed the names of beneficiaries of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ)’s farm mechanisation programme, whereby taxpayers’ money was said to have passed through packages to individuals including Zanu-PF politicians, judges and church pastors. This triggered a fresh wave of intimidation against Magaisa and his collaborators.

Despite this, he remained an affable personality and his refusal to be drawn into name-calling attracted admirers on both sides of Zimbabwe’s political divide, which was a rarity in such a polarised system. In 2017, he appeared in a photo with several of Zanu-PF’s younger leading members, stating: “We have serious disagreements on our politics but we are not enemies,” and urging “young people … to shun violence and instead have healthy relationships with their opponents despite political disagreements”.

Aside from his writing and activism, Magaisa did much to foster solidarity within Zimbabwean civil society, and last year he played a leading role in the creation of the Constitutional Law Centre (CLC), which brought a number of legal and human rights organisations under one umbrella. As an executive director and board secretary, he hoped that the CLC would promote research and advocacy about the rule of law, human rights and constitutionalism in his home country.

He is survived by his wife, Shamiso (nee Jongwe), and their two sons, Tinomuda and Anotida.

• Dr Alex Tawanda Magaisa, lawyer and writer, born 10 August 1975; died 5 June 2022

About the writer: Nic Cheeseman is professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham, the author of How to Rig an Election, and a former director of the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.–The Guardian.

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