When Neil Kinnock resigned as Labour leader after losing the 1992 general election, John Smith was seen as the obvious successor. He was deemed to have “immense credibility born out of natural integrity and years of public service.” He was head and shoulders above his colleagues. Although he was “quiet, modest manner and his politically moderate stance, he was a witty, often scathing speaker.” Gordon Brown said he had no doubt that John Smith had the strength, ability, and desire to face John Major in the 1997 general election and win.
Labour had been out of power for 18 years. Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives had dominated British politics while Labour struggled to modernise. There were toxic and militant elements within the Labour party who resisted reforms. John smith’s mission was to transform the Labour Party and reform the constitution.
As time went on, The Conservatives became so unpopular that John Smith was expected to be Prime Minister in 1997. Unfortunately, he died suddenly in 1994 of a heart attack which saw the young Tony Blair become leader and went on to become Prime Minister in 1997. Even Tony Blair acknowledged that had John Smith not passed away, he would have become Prime Minister.
This week I was reminded of John Smith when I saw the outpouring of grief by people mourning the death of Dr Alex Magaisa. Dr Magaisa was an intellectual powerhouse who was part of the team that crafted the Zimbabwean 2013 constitution. He went on to be Chief of Staff in the then Prime Minister’s office, Morgan Tsvangirai and advised him on strategy and policy formulation.
After his time as Chief of Staff, he returned to Kent University where he resumed his work as a lecturer in Public law, Company Law, and International Financial Regulation. The messages submitted by his former students testify that he was a gentle giant, had passion for ideas and loved empowering his students.
Zimbabweans were devastated by his death especially the young people he mentored. He had the ability to connect with people from all walks of life. In a country where power has never transferred peacefully, young people felt disconnected from the political system. Dr Magaisa took it upon himself to encourage young people to register to vote and to get involved in the political process. He often reminded them that the country and the future belonged to them. He was a shining star in a country blanketed by political darkness.
His death shocked so many people given that he was only 46 years old. He was seen as one of the people who would have taken Zimbabwe to its greatness. There is a feeling of Moses not making it to the promised land after sacrificing his life for his people. Now that he won’t be there to take Zimbabwe to its glory, his work was certainly preparing the way for the one who will do so.
He exemplified the famous words uttered by JFK on his inauguration “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” Dr Magaisa did not need invitation to contribute to his country. His life’s desire was to see a fully functional Zimbabwe built on democratic principles, rule of law and human rights. Although Zimbabwe appears to be a mess now, Zimbabweans have never stopped believing that their country will come good with the right leadership.
At heart, Dr Magaisa was a patriot, a hardcore Zimbabwean. Through his genius, he was able to disprove and nullify the government’s delusion that patriotism could only be expressed by strictly supporting the government or aligning with liberation war ethos. As absurd as it may seem, the government had monopolised patriotism. He must have been one of the few to take the government head on and push back on their governance shortcomings.
One of his well-known articles on the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s “Farming Mechanism Scheme” sent shock waves across the country. The US$200 million scheme was designed to help farmers in the early stages of land redistribution. Instead, politicians were the beneficiaries, and they did not pay back the loans. An Act of parliament was passed which took over the debt. It was effectively paid back by taxpayers.
There was pandemonium when the public realised the magnitude of the abuse considering the state of the economy. The politicians were not used to such scrutiny especially their names in the public domain for corrupt acts. They felt exposed and it was uncomfortable for them. In a country with no investigative journalism, his blog was more influential than newspapers, tv and radio.
People admired him for his diligent work on holding the government to account. He had a massive following with more than a million followers on all his social media platforms. His critics would give him the nickname “Bishop” for galvanising a broad church against ideas which he thought were contrary and detrimental to democracy. He embraced the name Bishop which I thought was apt given the loyalty people showed him and indeed they crowned him their Bishop. His blog “The Big Saturday Read” effectively baptised Zimbabweans and other African countries into born again democrats. Every Friday midnight, people would stay up for his weekly offerings on his blog and would engage until early hours of the morning.
Metaphorically, his blog was a class where he taught the country democracy and all matters of statecraft. He had the dexterity to decipher the most complex of constitutional and legal matters into simple and straightforward language. He enlightened so many people who often commended him for igniting their interest in politics. Though he’s gone, I foresee his blog being used as a point of reference and potentially taking the form of commandments essential for a robust system of government.
Dr Magaisa’s Legacy
Labour leaders in the 1990s said John Smith would have made a good Prime Minister had he not passed away. A Conservative MP submitted it was terrible that he passed away but hated that his death unleashed Tony Blair and Gordon brown who created New Labour. He went on to say Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were a formidable force who blew his party out of government for 13 years.
Dr Magaisa would not have necessarily become President, but any President would have wanted him in his inner circle. It’s sad that he won’t be around to see a transformed Zimbabwe. However, through his mentoring and engagements with the public, Dr Magaisa produced thousands like him who possess his intellectual DNA and passion for democracy. It’s highly likely that young leaders who will transform Zimbabwe, will stand on the foundation of the work he did.
Although he left a huge void in the political landscape, people need not lose heart. They should be inspired by his dedication and commitment to democracy. They should be inspired by his purpose driven life and inspired by his sense of fairness. The democratic fire he started must stay ablaze. Those inspired by him should step up and ensure that his work goes on. They should rise to the challenge and take Zimbabwe to the promised land. History has always shown that when your leaders die, it’s your time to step up and lead. The best way to honour his legacy is to uphold the ideas he believed in and for Zimbabwe to become a democratic state.
Dr Magaisa will be missed by many people around the world. He left Zimbabweans wanting more but he did more than enough for Zimbabwe. He instilled a great culture and respect for democracy among Zimbabweans. In this culture, Zimbabwe will find its salvation. We should learn from his work that democracy does not happen on its own. It requires good leaders to survive. Leaders who are crystal clear about their objectives and in touch with the realities of their people.
May His Soul Rest in Peace.