The institution of Alex Magaisa

Magaisa, who died this month, set agendas, and demanded the highest standards from the political and intellectual classes in Zimbabwe.

Alex Magaisa via The Big Saturday Read ©.

Zimbabwe born academic and lawyer Alex Magaisa died suddenly, aged 46, of a cardiac arrest at Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Hospital in Margate, Kent on June 5. Besides spending most of his career teaching law at the University of Kent in the UK, he was a public intellectual, a prolific columnist, a legal commentator on rule of law and constitutionalism in his native Zimbabwe.

For two decades Magaisa contributed analysis to The Daily News (before it was bombed and banned), online platforms such as New Zimbabwe, and more recently his own blog, The Big Saturday Read, a weekend feast that was in popular demand in Zimbabwe and its diaspora. His ideas set agendas, and demanded the highest standards from the political class. There has been nobody quite like him in contemporary Zimbabwean intellectual life. The outpouring of grief since the announcement of his sudden death has been enormous. Magaisa is considered to be one of the best legal minds of his generation. He was a key adviser in the recent constitution making process in Zimbabwe and features in Camilla Nielsson’s 2014 film documentary Democrats, which offers a glimpse at the political mechanics of a modern African country. He subsequently served in the office of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai as his chief of staff.

Despite occupying such powerful roles, Magaisa’s medium of choice was Twitter. He spent many hours sharing analysis of Zimbabwean politics, but also engaging with ordinary people about mundane subjects, such as football, gardening, and the rural village where he grew up. This accessibility and openness endeared him to many. He had the gift academics envy, the ability to communicate with many audiences. The art of Magaisa’s public writings was imbued with folkloric wisdoms, the quotidian, and anecdotes from the everyday. Readers saw themselves in his writings, which were stripped of all the legalese.

Magaisa was a subtle and enthralling figure whose sense of community made him connect with people from across the social divide, or who shared opposite political views. We met at the University of Kent campus where I spent four years as a doctoral student between 2008 and 2012. We became friends in part because of our mutual interests in reading and writing. Magaisa is among a lineage of black Zimbabwean intellectuals who have passed through Kent, a place, I would argue, that has quietly influenced the intellectual traditions of Zimbabwe since the 1970s. The University of Kent was one of the first institutions in the UK to recognise and teach postcolonial and Commonwealth studies (including African literature) as areas of scholarly inquiry. Some of the students in the university’s early cohorts included a group of Zimbabweans who had been banished from Rhodesia because of their political activism, and other notable Africans such as Abdulrazak Gurnah, the recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was the base from which Musaemura Zimunya, the most prominent of these scholars, almost single-handedly fought for Zimbabwean literature and its writers in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Since 2007, when Magaisa joined the law faculty, he kept this long tradition in Kent alive. I remember him holding court at the K Bar, a popular campus outlet. One of his major gifts was to bring people together. There were no hierarchies in our gatherings. Students, former students, faculty, non-university members congregated at weekends to debate, watch football, braai, and drink. Because we all belonged to different political and social backgrounds there were often fierce debates about the current state of Zimbabwe, and its futures. Magaisa was our high priest without whom all civility would have been lost, punches thrown, or bad words traded. We all learnt from Magaisa’s superpower: the ability to listen to all sides of a story.

It is through this generosity of spirit that also made Magaisa an institution builder. He co-founded think tanks and policy platforms because the ethos of his intellectual project was predicated on collective consciousness. It is too early to tell Magaisa’s legacy, but he has no doubt influenced a generation of Zimbabweans.

Magaisa was born August 10 1975 in Chikomba district, a place from which his intellectual philosophy was deeply anchored. He went to St Francis of Assisi High School and graduated from the University of Zimbabwe with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1997. He later received a Chevening Scholarship resulting in him graduating with a doctorate in law at the University of Warwick in 2004. He worked as a lawyer and legal manager for Zimbabwean and British firms before joining Kent Law School in 2007.

His sudden death was a shock. Memorial events have been held in Canterbury and Harare. His body will be repatriated for burial in Zimbabwe, where a large crowd is expected to converge to bid farewell to this illustrious son of the soil. He leaves behind a wife, Shamiso, and two sons.

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