Nic Cheeseman has written an obituary of his friend and Colleague Alex Magaisa for the Guardian newspaper. To read it click here. The published version is a shorter and edited version of this text, which contains more details about Alex’s life and impact in Zimbabwe and beyond. He would like to thank the many friends who helped to write and strengthen the piece, and sees this as a collective effort, befitting Alex’s unifying approach.
Alex Magaisa, who has died aged 46, was a law professor at the University of Kent and a major force for democracy in Zimbabwe. In the face of severe political repression under the ZANU-PF government of President Robert Mugabe, he served as a trusted advisor to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party led by Morgan Tsvangirai, and helped draft the country’s new constitution. Magaisa’s subsequent emergence as one of the country’s most respected political commentators was built on his remarkable ability to communicate academic insights to a mass audience. The elegance of his prose, and willingness to speak truth to power, meant that Magaisa’s words regularly entered the inboxes – and hearts – of fellow Zimbabweans. By the time of his death, he was an irreplaceable public intellectual.
Magaisa’s rise to national prominence began in the 2010s. Following the flawed presidential elections of 2008, President Mugabe was forced to accept a power sharing government in which Tsvangirai took up the role of Prime Minister and the Constitution Parliamentary Committee (COPAC) was established to revise the country’s outdated and authoritarian constitution. In 2011, Magaisa took a leave of absence from the University of Kent to become a core member of the technical team advising COPAC, a move that reflected his deep love of his birthplace. Even though Magaisa spent much of his life outside of the country, his commitment to Zimbabwe, and to the fight for its future, never waned.
The constitutional review process was as fraught as it was important, with Mugabe disrupting the talks and preventing meaningful change. The negotiations, and the consistent harassment of the MDC team, were brought to wider attention by the documentary Democrats, which won the Best Documentary award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Though the resulting draft had a number of limitations, it was widely seen to be an improvement on its predecessor, and was approved by almost 95% of voters in a referendum in 2013.
By this time, Magaisa had already moved on to an even more high-profile position, serving as a Chief Advisor – effectively a Chief of Staff – to Prime Minister Tsvangirai for the final two years of the power-sharing government. In this role he helped Tsvangirai to prepare for the 2013 general elections and, when they were manipulated by the government, formed part of the MDC legal team that unsuccessfully filed a petition at the Constitutional Court.
Magaisa was well qualified to act as a legal advisor having both studied, practiced, and taught law. Born on 9 August 1975 in the then Charter District of Rhodesia (now Chikomba District in Zimbabwe) he grew up in both towns and villages, which he credited with giving him an equal affinity with urban and rural walks of life. After graduating with an undergraduate degree at the University of Zimbabwe, he joined the respected law firm, Gill Godlonton & Gerrans, as an Associate. Magaisa subsequently pursued graduate studies at the University of Warwick, graduating with a PhD in Law in 2003, before joining the University of Kent Law School in 2007. A respected expert on company law, intellectual property law and international financial regulation, Magaisa published on a range of issues including constitutional practice and land law in Zimbabwe.
Ironically, it was after moving away from the political and legal frontline that Magaisa’s wider influence blossomed. An erudite author and a balanced analyst, his commentaries on Zimbabwean politics combined passion and rigour, filling 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, and his “Big Saturday Read” (BSR) – a weekly long read that provided a historically informed take on the issues of the day – quickly became an institution. Through his essays, Magaisa became a much loved teacher and intellectual guide for thousands of Zimbabweans.
A patient mentor and constructive ally who did much to foster solidarity within civil society, Magaisa played a leading role in the creation of the Constitutional Law Centre (CLC) in 2021, bringing together a number of important legal and human rights organizations. Motivated by a deep belief that Zimbabweans should know their constitution, Magaisa hoped the CLC would promote research and advocacy about the rule of law, human rights and constitutionalism. Like much of his research, Magaisa’s publications for the CLC combined forensic academic analysis and practical policy nous. It was this combination of academic and real-world expertise that meant that time with Magaisa was seen as gold dust by students, activists, researchers, and diplomats, alike.
A hugely popular individual, Magaisa’s affable personality and refusal to be drawn into name calling enabled him to maintain admirers on both sides of the political divide, a rarity in a polarised system. While Magaisa never shied away from the hard work required to transform Zimbabwe, during a period in which politics became increasingly exclusionary his ideals shone as a beacon of hope, an example of what the country could yet become. As Magaisa wrote of his vision for the BSR, “Our values are as embedded in the Constitution of Zimbabwe … openness, transparency, accountability, equality, diversity, respect and pluralism. We believe every voice matters and that we must always remain vigilant to prevent a tyranny of the majority”.
He is survived by his wife, Shamiso, and his two sons, Tinomuda and Anotida.
Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy and Director of the Centre for Elections, Democracy Accountability and Representation (CEDAR) at the University of Birmingham.