National Healing Minister and Movement for Democratic Change founding president Gibson Jama Sibanda has died, his party announced on Tuesday.

He was 66.

Sibanda, who led the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions for more than a decade, died at Bulawayo’s Mater Dei hospital on Monday night, his party’s deputy secretary general Priscilla Misihairabwi said.

Misihairabwi said Sibanda had been in and out of hospital over the last year quietly battling cancer.

“We have lost a gentle giant, a father figure and quiet spirit who was hardly ruffled by many things,” Misihairabwi told New by telephone from Harare.

Sibanda never re-married after his wife Ntombizodwa died in 2003 following her own public battle with cancer.

Sibanda, a former welfare secretary of the liberation movement, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), was detained without trial for three years by the former white minority government alongside other nationalist leaders between 1976 and 1979.

In 1984, he was elected president of five amalgamated railway trade unions. He studied and obtained a Diploma in Industrial Labour Relations, and would later become vice president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in 1988.

He became ZCTU president a year later – a position he held until 1999 when he became the interim leader of a ZCTU-initiated political party, the Movement for Democratic Change.

Sibanda led the party for close to six months leading up to its first congress in February 2000. He was elected deputy president at the congress as Morgan Tsvangirai, the former ZCTU secretary general, assumed leadership.

In parliamentary elections that year, Sibanda became an MP after defeating Dumiso Dabengwa in Nkulumane.

In 2001, Sibanda was arrested on charges of inciting violence. The case was withdrawn in January 2003 before plea.

In November of the same year, an attempt was made on his life and those of MDC secretary general Welshman Ncube, elections director Paul Themba Nyathi and treasurer Fletcher Dulini Ncube.

A gunman opened fire on them with a machine gun while they stood outside the MDC’s regional office in Bulawayo. No arrests were made.

Sibanda’s convoy was also attacked in Kuwadzana, Harare, when he and other MDC leaders went to address a rally during the presidential election campaign in 2002.

On April 1, 2003, Sibanda was arrested once again, this time on charges of seeking to overthrow President Robert Mugabe’s government. The charges arose from a nationwide job boycott supported by the MDC between March 18 and 19.

He was kept in police custody for seven days before being granted bail. He was remanded four times in the ensuing year before the charges were withdrawn before plea on February 16, 2004, because the State was unable to produce any evidence.

Fissures began appearing in the MDC party in 2005 when leaders agonised over whether to field candidates in a newly-established Senate. Sibanda, along with the powerful secretary general Ncube and other leaders advocated participation, arguing that the party could not give ground to Mugabe’s Zanu PF in constituencies where it had MPs – mostly in Matabeleland.

Tsvangirai, meanwhile, took the line that the Senate was an unnecessary drain on the national fiscus and the party should boycott.

The party split that year and Sibanda briefly led a breakaway MDC before standing down at the February 2006 congress which saw the entry of Arthur Mutambara into local politics as president. Sibanda became his deputy.

He lost his parliamentary seat to Thamsanqa Mahlangu from the Tsvangirai-led MDC formation in the 2008 general elections.

In August 2008, he stood for the post of President of the Senate with the support of colleagues from the Tsvangirai-led MDC formation but lost to Zanu PF’s Edna Madzongwe.

Sibanda became a member of the Senate in 2009 following his appointment as a Minister of State for National Healing in the new coalition government formed between Mugabe, Tsvangirai and Mutambara.