WILLIAM (Bill) Sylvester Saidi, who died this week at the age of 79, was a doyen of journalists in Zimbabwe.
echoes: CONWAY TUTANI
The word “doyen” — meaning a person considered to be knowledgeable or uniquely skilled as a result of long experience in some field of endeavour — cannot, and should not, be applied to each and every one (munhu wese wese, as they say in Shona), but to the Saidis of journalism.
My sense of loss is all the more heavy because I have personal recollections of Saidi, not just the professional connection. I crossed paths with Saidi before I even existed, so to say. You see, Saidi and my late cousin Shelton Tutani formed a music group, Milton Brothers, in their Harare (now Mbare) township neighbourhood in the 1950s, when Mbare was a vibrant artistic and cultural heartbeat unlike the decaying slum it has been reduced to today.
Milton Brothers, who also featured the late legendary female vocalist, Faith Dauti, who was Saidi’s cousin, performed at my parents’ wedding in 1953, so I was told much later after I was born.
Our paths were to cross again — this time face-to-face — soon after independence in the 1980s when Saidi, having reconstructed himself from a musician to a journalist, returned from Zambia, where he had relocated, and joined Zimbabwe Newspapers (Zimpapers), where I was then working.
Saidi then resumed his friendship with Shelton, who connected me with Saidi, who could not resist the temptation to now and then remind me of “that wedding day in 1953”, as one who was “privileged” to see my parents’ courtship.
Yes, Saidi was not short of dry humour. He had that flair for comedic delivery, saying or doing something humorous without changing his voice or facial expression.
Having risen to a senior editor in Zambia, where he clashed with President Kenneth Kaunda and had several brushes with the law for telling it as it is, Saidi was under no illusion that things would be smooth when he returned to the newly-independent Zimbabwe. Sooner rather than later, he was at odds with the Zanu PF government and his career stagnated. He was then forced out.
I was to reunite with him in 1999 after I was “poached” by the newly-established Daily News, where he was now Assistant Editor. The paper — under the leadership of journalistic doyens such as Geoff Nyarota as Editor-in-Chief, Davison Maruziva (Deputy Editor) and Saidi — quickly became the biggest-selling daily in Zimbabwe until it was forcibly shut down in 2003 because management — not editors — played into the hands of the regime by foolishly refusing to register the paper as required by the law.
Had saner heads prevailed, we would be talking of something completely different today, politically speaking, because the Daily News shook the corridors of power. A great team was scattered, which no reincarnation has matched up to now.
After that, Saidi served as Deputy Editor of The Standard for a few years. He then went full circle circa 2009, when he rejoined Zimpapers in a different and lower capacity, and we were once again reunited after I had been kindly offered a job in 2004 after the closure of The Daily News the previous year. It is to the immense credit of the then Zimpapers Editor-in-Chief Pikirayi Deketeke that he approved our reinstatement from the “enemy” private media.
It must be mentioned here and now that Deketeke used his discretionary powers to be kind, power as a force for good, whereas others invariably use it to indulge their cruelty, to avenge and exclude. Life is not all about partisan politics, but helping and rescuing each other in times of need.
Saidi’s writing style was deep, but captivating, because it was easy to understand as he was not jargonistic like one Nathaniel Manheru, whose message is lost in verbosity.
Saidi’s intelligence, coupled with his maturity, ensured he did not stoop that low as to be scatalogical — to use dirty language — in the wars of words he was often embroiled in. He let his incisive, but decent, language do the talking for him. He did not have to use such Donald Trump-esque terms as “open zip and shut mind”, as one Jonathan Moyo routinely does in insulting political opponents.
It’s not to say that Saidi did not have any faults. For one, he had a stubborn streak which could rub people the wrong way. Fortunately, that did not manifest too often. And now and then his temper could explode, but who hasn’t erupted in anger whether rightly or wrongly?
But some of Saidi’s seemingly erratic behaviour could have been misconstrued as mean whereas it was due to the fact that he was diabetic and the chronic condition can cause mood swings.
Others saw him as an eccentric old man, who constantly munched on food, whereas as one afflicted with diabetes, he had to constantly chew on something because if he did not, he would have fallen into a diabetic coma and died on the spot.
Saidi believed that ideology, if any, was there to serve people, not people to serve ideology. He lived up to the motto that journalism is a conscience profession. He would rather not write than be made to write what he did not fundamentally believe in. He spoke and wrote his own mind. He was never ever for political correctness. He also wrote with self-deprecating humour. He did not take himself too seriously.
Saidi was not afraid to take on tough-guy charlatans, people with ostentatious pretenses to knowledge and skills and who will threaten physical violence upon being exposed. He was dead against people who manipulate others’ vulnerabilities and appeal to their emotions to make them even go to the extent of killing their neighbours, as happens during election time.
But what I know for sure is that what Saidi detested most was the building and perpetuation of a cult of personality, where an individual uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods to create an idealised, heroic and even worshipful image, mainly through unquestioning flattery and praise.
Without being scatalogical, it’s possible that Saidi would have vomited at the sycophantic remarks made by Zanu PF youth league leader, Kudzai Chipanga in December 2016 that he would approach the Registrar-General’s Department to have the word “President” added on the birth certificate of “Robert Gabriel Mugabe”. Saidi could not countenance that any leader should get away with presenting themselves as some deity or demi-god.
Who does not know that, most of all, Saidi, in his long and illustrious career, was a truly remarkable journalist, whose fierce independence proved that no media house — whether State or private — owned him, but that journalism owned him?
That’s why Saidi was, and is, in that pantheon — that small group of people who are the most famous, important and admired in their particular area of activity — of true doyens of journalism in Zimbabwe.
Goodbye, Bill. May your soul rest in eternal peace.
Conway Nkumbuzo Tutani is a Harare-based columnist. Email: email@example.com