HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — He was called the "sharpest thorn" in Robert Mugabe's side. Zimbabwe on Friday mourned Roy Bennett, a white founding member of the main opposition party who died Thursday with his wife, Heather, in a helicopter crash in the United States.
With his fluent Shona, earthy manner and passion for political change in the southern African nation, Bennett won a devoted following among black Zimbabweans. He was known as "Pachedu," meaning "one of us" in Shona.
His death comes as Zimbabwe sees dramatic change. Mugabe shocked the world by resigning in November after 37 years in power, under pressure from the military and ruling party.
Now President Emmerson Mnangagwa seeks to leave his mentor Mugabe's shadow, open the once-prosperous nation to the world after years of sanctions over human rights abuses and secure his legacy in what he vows will be free and fair elections in a few months' time.
Bennett until the end remained a vocal critic of Mugabe, who had led Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980 and oversaw a country whose glow of optimism faded under allegations of mismanagement, rigged elections and harsh treatment of perceived dissent.
The opposition leader's death was a "huge and tragic loss," said Obert Gutu, spokesman for Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change opposition party. Tendai Biti, a prominent opposition leader and a former finance minister, called it "a blow to our struggle."
Bennett had won a parliamentary seat in a rural constituency despite being white, angering Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party. He surprised many with the win at a time when the ruling party had a stranglehold on rural areas and had gone on a demonization campaign of the country's white minority.
But well before joining politics, Bennett was already a hugely popular figure in the Chimanimani area of eastern Zimbabwe. He often filled in where the government failed to provide, using his own resources to repair roads and other local infrastructure and pay school fees for underprivileged children.
His successful coffee farm was seized by veterans of the country's liberation war as Mugabe pushed to strip many white farmers of their land. One of Bennett's farmworkers was killed by the invaders and Bennett's wife, Heather, miscarried after the assault.
When Bennett became treasurer-general of the MDC-T party, he was repeatedly criticized by Mugabe for allegedly being its contact with foreign funders.
In 2004, Bennett was jailed for a year for assaulting a Cabinet minister who had said his "forefathers were thieves and murderers" during a parliamentary debate. An enraged Bennett charged the minister, who fell to the floor. He emerged from prison rail-thin and scarred from repeated sunburns and told of the mistreatment of fellow detainees, some of whom he said had starved to death in their cells.
After receiving death threats, Bennett fled Zimbabwe but returned in 2009 after his party nominated him for deputy agriculture minister in a coalition government with Tsvangirai as prime minister. On his return, Bennett was arrested and charged for illegal possession of weapons for terrorism, banditry and insurgency. The MDC-T called the accusations a ploy by Mugabe. In 2010, Bennett was acquitted but Mugabe still refused to swear him in.
Bennett later moved to South Africa but remained an outspoken critic of Mugabe's rule. He also criticized his former party for allegedly enjoying the comforts of government while ordinary Zimbabweans suffered.
Bennett and his wife were "two of Zimbabwe's greatest patriots," said David Coltart, an opposition figure who served as minister of education in the coalition government.
"Bennett reminded me of the potential that Zimbabwe holds if its multiple races and cultures could actually break the barriers that exist between them and work together," Zimbabwean lawyer Alex Magaisa wrote Friday. "Bennett was part of a small group of white Zimbabweans who joined the democratic movement and demonstrated that whites do still have a place in Zimbabwe."
Few people under Mugabe suffered more, Magaisa added.
Burial arrangements were yet to be announced.