I cannot claim to have known the late Vice-President John Nkomo personally, having spoken to him just once and only in passing.
Column by Conway Tutani
But there is no doubt that Nkomo, who died last week at the age of 78, was held in the highest regard by many Zimbabweans, going by the spontaneous, almost unanimous outpouring of grief following his passing-on. There was genuine expression of loss.
Of course, he had his strong critics. Who wouldn’t, given his independent and fearless streak, given the highly polarised nature of the nation where political leaders are both celebrated and reviled in almost equal measure? That’s the tragedy of a divided nation.
He did not have a victimhood mentality common in people who blame everyone else for their ills. People must be able to see beyond their own assumptions and conceive of a larger reality.
Nkomo was not afraid to take a stand, even publicly. He could not suffer fakes and fools. He and his predecessor, the late Vice-President Joseph Msika, stood up to walk out at the 2009 Zanu PF congress after self-styled ex-combatant Jabulani Sibanda, who had been parachuted over their heads into a war veterans’ leader against their advice that he was never in the Zipra ranks, had been given the rostrum to speak. An angry Nkomo grabbed the microphone and pointed an accusing finger at Sibanda, saying: “You! You are the problem! Stay away from the table!”
Going by this public no-nonsense display, Nkomo must have fought a lot of battles behind the scenes courageously and honestly. The two of them — Nkomo and Msika — were amadoda sibili (real men). It’s not surprising that the pair was not in the least impressed by Jonathan Moyo’s antics and buffoonery, with Msika labelling him mafikizolo (Johnny-come-lately). People may not be able to argue with or respond to his points, but they know what he is saying has no real substance. Greatness is about what you impart, not what you claim to be.
One thing that struck me about Nkomo is that even at the highest period of rupture and enmity, he still reached out to the other side by maintaining channels of communication. In that way, he became a conciliator. He prevented the total breakdown of dialogue after virtual war broke out between the liberation movements — Zanu PF and PF Zapu — escalating into the Gukurahundi massacres in which over 20 000 civilians died. Nkomo was honest to himself and to both sides to tell them that they both shouldered blame for that to various extents and would have to shift their attitudes. This was a politically brave stance to take in a highly-charged atmosphere — typical of Nkomo’s highly unflappable nature. Of course, he could be fiery when the occasion necessitated that.
But it needs to be mentioned that while Nkomo was associated with a party — Zanu PF — notorious for bloody excesses, the armed struggle in which he was involved from the beginning was legitimate. By the time of the 2008 presidential run-off election, Zimbabwe was not only militarised, but also terrorised, with opposition voices cowed and silenced. The brutality was naked. Sadc drew a line and Zanu PF crossed it, but nothing was done.
Zanu PF basically said to hell with you as it appeared totally densensitised to violence. The result was a farcical one-horse race as people were virtually disenfranchised through subterfuge and intimidation, wile and guile. This was a throwback to Rhodesia as far as abrogation of political rights was concerned. The Rhodesian electorate in 1969 was one of the smallest (with 91 00 voters out of a population of about 4 million then) and the most contrived (with 81 500 white voters and only 6 600 black voters whereas blacks comprised over 90% of the population) in the world as only one person in 40 was allowed to vote. The Commonwealth drew a line and the Rhodesian Front crossed it, but nothing was done. Genuine, legitimate political voices — Zanu and Zapu — had been banned five years earlier and their leaders imprisoned. They did not plunge into violence straight away, but were eventually forced to do so by an unyielding racist system. Even Nelson Mandela, who was to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, now considered peacemaker of peacemakers, saw the necessity of resorting to violence in South Africa to fight a greater evil: apartheid. Although initially and for many years committed to non-violent protest, he adopted a policy of violent resistance.
Yes, the similarities between pre-independence Rhodesia and pre-inclusive government Zimbabwe are hard to ignore, but this doesn’t illegitimise the armed struggle which brought about real change which is now being frittered on the altar of power and greed.
It’s important to neither canonise Nkomo nor to demonise him because, like all of us, he was not a saint, neither was he a demon, but a strong, effectual, genuine character he was.
Nkomo certainly left his mark on the body politic of Zimbabwe as acknowledged across the political divide and other spheres such as religion. This was a strong case for burying political differences, mainly because of what Nkomo stood for: The independent, indivisible nation state of Zimbabwe.
Co-founding the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, in 1961, Mandela said: “It’s not that we are bad people, but that we are responding to bad people.”
Nkomo, in his own way, always faced up to bad people — before and after independence.