Chenjerai Hunzvi, who last year spearheaded the often bloody takeovers of white-owned farms in Zimbabwe by veterans of that country’s liberation war, died Monday, Zimbabwe state radio announced. He was 51.
Zimbabwean Health Minister Timothy Stamps said Hunzvi died of kidney failure linked to cerebral malaria. The increasingly gaunt Hunzvi had been in and out of hospitals since he collapsed last week while visiting war veterans in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city.
Hunzvi was a key ally of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Supporters hailed Hunzvi as a champion of the rights of disenfranchised black veterans of the war against white colonial rule that ended with independence from Britain in 1980.
On Monday, few Hunzvi supporters from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, were willing to comment on his death.
But opponents of the notoriously neurotic, controversial Hunzvi said they fear that his death could provide an excuse for war veterans to step up their disruption campaign, and they predicted additional unrest. His opponents have long accused Hunzvi--and Mugabe--of orchestrating violence against followers of the political opposition.
“As a pioneer of the farm occupations and one of ZANU-PF’s campaign strategists, he was no doubt a significant player in that party, and his death will certainly cause further instability and uncertainty in the ZANU-PF camp,” the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, said in a statement.
In a statement, Mugabe said Hunzvi was a “pivotal player” in Zimbabwe’s land reform program.
“His leadership was particularly inspiring in that it came at a historic time when some people were beginning to waver, viewing our war veterans as objects of contempt and ridicule while downgrading land as not a national priority,” Mugabe said.
“As the vigorous and passionate leader of the war veterans’ association,” he said, “comrade Hunzvi rekindled the revolutionary spirit among freedom fighters to complete the . . . unfinished objective of the liberation struggle of giving back land to the people.”
One senior government official told Reuters news agency that “able comrades” were ready to take Hunzvi’s place.
Hunzvi, who was widely known by the nickname “Hitler,” was the third high-ranking ruling party member to die in six weeks. Employment Minister Border Gezi and Defense Minister Moven Mahachi died in separate car accidents.
Hunzvi shot to prominence in 1997 when he forced the president to award huge gratuities to veterans--or risk a violent backlash. Last year, as the country prepared for landmark parliamentary elections, he led supporters in illegal takeovers of more than 1,700 white farms.
Mugabe, who is shepherding a “fast-track” land-redistribution program, has described the land occupations as a justified protest against unfair land ownership by Zimbabwe’s 50,000 or so whites.
Hunzvi often referred to white Zimbabweans as “foreigners” and insisted they leave the country.
“I am happy that the British are talking about taking in 20,000 white people,” Hunzvi said last spring during the height of the land invasions. “They have been stealing our land. They should go tomorrow.”
Likening himself to revolutionary leaders such as Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Hunzvi often boasted that he had triggered a transformation for his fellow black Zimbabweans that could never be stopped.
“I am not above the law, nor am I trying to be the leader of this country,” he once said. “I am simply championing the return of land to its rightful owners.”
The MDC said it would use Hunzvi’s death as an opportunity to renew its commitment “toward the opening up of democratic space among all Zimbabweans and the resolution of the unfinished land question in a peaceful, legal and orderly manner.”
Recently, Hunzvi had commanded raids on nearly 200 mainly white-owned factories and businesses by militants claiming that they were settling labor disputes. Facing increasing international criticism, the government eventually ordered a stop to the attacks and made several arrests.
Opponents, however, said such disruptions are unlikely to cease with Hunzvi’s death because they are being encouraged by Mugabe.
“What [Hunzvi] was doing was with the blessing of the president,” MDC spokesman Learnmore Jongwe said. “He was just a foot soldier. The cause of the unrest is with the president himself.”
Born to peasant farmers, Hunzvi later trained in the 1970s as a doctor in Poland, where he met and married his now estranged Polish wife, Wieslawa.
Critics accused him of forging his medical records to claim compensation in 1995 from a government fund for victims of the liberation war. Opponents, and even Wieslawa, claim that Hunzvi never fought in the liberation war.
“He never picked up a gun,” she said.
Hunzvi had countered that he was “not in the bush, but in the war council, deciding and planning the war and administering it.”
“I was in the high command making decisions,” he said.
In her book, “White Slave,” published in Poland in the early 1990s, Wieslawa accused her husband of being abusive and an uncaring father to their two sons.
Hunzvi was jailed in 1999 awaiting trial on fraud charges relating to his handling of money belonging to the war veterans association. He was acquitted earlier this year.
Hunzvi is expected to have a state funeral.