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Echoes: The heroic Mukonoweshuro I knew

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A wise editor once said to a rising journalist: “If you try to write about everything, you write about nothing. If you try to write for everyone, you write for nobody.”

I would like to recall personal glimpses — no more, no less — I have of Eliphas Mukonoweshuro from the first time I met him in March 1972 when I enrolled for “A” Level at Tegwani (now Thekwane) High School, a co-educational Methodist Church in Zimbabwe boarding institution in Plumtree.
Professor Eliphas Mukonoweshuro, who was Public Service minister and an MDC-T senior official, died last Friday.

Eliphas, as we used to call him, was in Upper Sixth Form, a year ahead of me, when I arrived at Tegwani. He was also in a different house, Hlabangana, while I was in Aggrey. We were initially brought together by smoking. At Tegwani, “A” Level students were allowed to smoke and we could buy cigarettes from the school tuckshop, but we could only puff in smoking zones. All who knew Mukonoweshuro are aware that smoking was his lifelong vice and this could have contributed to the heart condition which took his life. I am still struggling to shake off this habit.

At first, Eliphas put me off as a humourless nerd and prude because he couldn’t stand fools and did not seem to have time for romantic dalliances like many of us who used to stroll with girls along “Lovers’ Avenue” after the Sunday church service.But then he dropped a letter from a girl addressed to him as “Dear Ely baby”. This discovery that this mostly serious-looking character could actually open his heart to a girl gave us endless days of laughter at his expense. That really broke the ice.

As I got to know him intimately, I also discerned that he was a highly gifted character with a quiet, but big presence. I and my classmates Langton Jiri (who died in Mozambique where he had joined the liberation struggle) and Tanius Hlasi Mumbengegwi (now a private doctor in Bulawayo), among others, used to crowd in Eliphas’s cubicle in Hlabangana dormitory discussing political issues and other topics over smokes (again!).

He also brought us into the secret that he was leading the underground Zanu movement at the school as black political activity was then banned by the white Rhodesian regime. I remember making a casual reference to Zapu in my dormitory and this resulted in a young Form One boy, Lewis Msika, bursting into tears. In trying to find out why and console him, I discovered that his father, Joseph Msika, was in political detention. We became friends.

One afternoon Eliphas suddenly called us into the bush outside the school perimeter. There we found Zimbabwean refugees who had been thrown out of Botswana and faced the prospect of arrest by Rhodesian security. Among them was John Madzinga, who was later to become Zanu PF MP for Zengeza. Eliphas organised for their food, shelter and safety.

The following year, 1973, he enrolled at the University of Rhodesia (UR — now University of Zimbabwe) while I remained at Tegwani to finish Upper Sixth. During the first term holiday, Langton and I visited Eliphas at the UR, where we found him in the company of Witness Mangwende and November Mtshiya (who had been my school captain at Fletcher High School, now a High Court judge), among other illustrious student leaders.

Mangwende was later to serve as Foreign Affairs minister in independent Zimbabwe and lies buried at the National Heroes’ Acre. This is the heroic company Eliphas used to keep. So this website posting this week by Phil Munyaradzi is ignorant and ignoble:“PM, it’s sad we lost Minister Mukonoweshuro, but it’s another thing to say he is a hero . . . MDC heroism does not translate into national heroism.True heroes are Herbert Chitepo, Josh Nkomo, Tongo, JZ . . . VanaMukonoweshuro are opportunistic grumblers and history will not be kind to them.”

And this one by a charlatan who signed off as “Chatunga”, despicably exploiting the name of President Robert Mugabe’s son: “I’m wondering when the jailing for ‘political activism and escaping to Botswana’ happened, anybody know?” Just because you don’t know when does not erase fact and history!

Later that year, black students at the UR rioted against the unjust, racist system. Most of them were jailed for three months after pleading guilty to public violence. Eliphas, Mangwende and a few others fingered as ringleaders pleaded not guilty despite torture and got stiffest sentences of as much as 15 months.Imagine facing this when you are barely into your 20s!

But Eliphas refused defeat. Shortly after being released from jail, he left the country through Botswana to pursue his academic career, coming back with many degrees after independence.

Politics, underpinned by justice and fairness, was his passion. Inevitably, when inequalities began to surface and widen in independent Zimbabwe, Eliphas found himself deeply enmeshed in active politics again — this time on the opposite side. He was never one for the limelight, but a fighter he was. While he was intellectual, he did not have an elitist view of politics.

That’s why he could operate alongside trade unionists like Morgan Tsvangirai and Gibson Sibanda without being self-conscious about his chain of degrees. He saw the synergies that this brought. Eliphas could also be extraordinarily obstinate, never afraid to confront and, indeed, insult friend and foe alike. What he detested was people trying to outdo each other in being inward-looking. He saw beyond the Tower of Babel.

Some people who didn’t comprehend the depth of his integrity mistook him for a regionalist or tribalist whereas he equally fearlessly challenged those from his own Karanga ethnic group.

He took the whole political value chain into consideration. He was as clear-minded as can be. I believe Eliphas was considerably more open-minded than the average person because of interacting with people from varied backgrounds at a relatively early age at Tegwani, where one had to learn fast about the ethnic dynamics at work.

I first and last met him as Public Service minister in Harare’s First Street Mall a year ago as he was walking with a sole bodyguard. We exchanged phone numbers. He was modest and sharp as ever.

Said Zanu PF politburo member and fellow academic of note Professor Jonathan Moyo, who knows better: “There is no doubt that Professor Mukonoweshuro was a distinguished academic and an inspiration to many of us . . .”

Eliphas refused defeat, decline and national submission. Isn’t that heroic?

ctutani@newsday.co.zw

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