Gibson Jama Sibanda was born in Filabusi in 1944, a year before the momentous strike on the Railways in what was then Southern and Northern Rhodesia in 1945, a sector in which Sibanda would learn and develop the trade unions skills that would serve him so well in later years.
He attended Mzinyathini Primary in Esigodini district, and Tegwane Secondary, where he attained his “O”Level certificate. In later years he advanced his educational level through the attainment of a Diploma from the JF Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
In 1969 Gibson Sibanda married Ntombizodwa and they raised four children, Sibongile, Thandiwe, Mbuso and Zanele. His beloved Zodwa, who passed away in 2003, was a political and human rights activist in her own right.
Between 1965 and 1982 he worked at different times as a fitter and train driver on the Rhodesia Railways and National Railways of Zimbabwe respectively.
During the UDI period he also became involved in nationalist politics serving as the secretary of welfare for the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), during his period of incarceration at Wha Wha and Marondera detention camps. While in detention Sibanda, like many other nationalist leaders, furthered his education by completing his “A” levels.
In the post-colonial era Sibanda played a key role in reorganising the labour movement in the country, at a time when the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), formed from five trade union federations, was until the mid 1980s a wing of the then ruling Zanu PF party.
Between 1982 and 1988 Sibanda became president of the Railways Association of Enginemen and president of the Amalgamated Railways Union, thus playing a key role in the deracialisation and unification of the railway unions.
More significantly, Sibanda rose to the position of vice-president of the ZCTU in 1988, becoming the president of the labour federation in 1989.
In the decade that Sibanda held this position, he developed a close and very effective relationship with the charismatic general secretary of the ZCTU during this period, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Under their leadership, the trade union movement was transformed from a weak and unaccountable organisation under the patronage of Zanu PF, into one of the most effective labour federations on the African continent.
Through the reorganisation of the ZCTU’s organisational, legal and educational departments, the labour federation contributed to the shopfloor growth of sectoral unions.
Additionally along with other leaders in the ZCTU, Sibanda expanded his linkages with the international trade union movement through his involvement in structures such as the International Labour Organisation, the International Confederation of Trade Unions, and the Commonwealth Trade Union Congress.
For those who were close observers of the labour movement during this period, it was clear that the partnership of Tsvangirai and Sibanda combined the leadership flair and exuberant style of the former with the more quietly anchoring and unifying role of the latter.
When the Movement for Democratic Change was formed in 1999, Sibanda’s election to the vice-presidential position relocated the partnership and friendship with Tsvangirai into the political arena.
Under this leadership the MDC launched a party that transformed the political landscape in Zimbabwe.
Sibanda played a key role in guiding the new party through its early stages and putting in place the party structures required to contest for state power.
In the parliamentary election of 2000 Sibanda was elected as the MP for Nkulumane, defeating the formidable figure of Dumiso Dabengwa.
As in the ZCTU, Sibanda played the quiet role of anchor and unifier in the MDC. In line with the general harassment of the leadership of the MDC, Sibanda was charged with inciting violence at a rally in 2001.
In 2005 the MDC split over issues of organisational accountability and strategy. Sibanda was devastated not only by the split, but by the bitter and vitriolic divorce that marked the fracture.
This split and the damaging effect it had on his long-time friendship and working relationship with Tsvangirai, had a devastating effect on him.
From 2006, Sibanda served as the vice-president of the formation of the MDC under the leadership of Arthur Mutambara, a role he took on with no illusions about the enormous difficulties but in the belief that there was little choice but to take this road.
In the 2008 election, he lost his parliamentary seat and was faced with a forlorn political future, until the signing of the GPA in 2008 and the formation of the Inclusive Government in 2009.
In the new arrangement Sibanda was elected to the Senate and appointed the Mutambara nominee to the new Organ of National Healing.
The passing of the humble and avuncular figure of Gibson Sibanda on August 24 is a great loss to his family, both MDCs, the broader democratic movement, and the country.
Brian Raftopoulos, Director of Research, Solidarity Peace Trust, and Research Fellow, Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape