Happy birthday Mr. President!
Your birth on February 21, 1924 in Kutama, Rhodesia was a blessed event for your people.
We thank you for serving your country, both in the struggle for freedom and as the prime minister, then president of independent Zimbabwe.
As a young lad, I was a great admirer of yours and your fellow fighters for freedom in Zimbabwe. I grew up hearing names of great men who made us proud to watch them fearlessly take on the leaders of Great Britain. I especially remember Joshua Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole, Herbert Chitepo and Joshua Magama Tongogara.
You were in prison during those days of independent Africa’s early triumph and failure, hope and disappointment as country after country stumbled along a path that led to decline and collapse.
But when you came out of prison in 1974 and began to speak, with a command of English that you used with devastating effect, you thrilled the political passions of inexperienced, thoroughly naïve young Pan-Africanists like me.
The only person that eclipsed you in eloquence was the great Ali M. Simbule, the Zambian diplomat who, even before he had presented his credentials in London in 1967, castigated the United Kingdom’s position on the Rhodesia that had you incarcerated.
“Britain is a humbled, toothless bulldog, wagging its tail in front of Rhodesian Premier Ian Smith and fearing him like hell,” Simbule told a press conference in Lusaka.
Mr. President, you have no idea how thrilled we were, and how frequently we recited Simbule’s words as though we understood the high stakes at play.
I mean we were little boys, completely clueless about politics, just drunk with hope for the African’s freedom and self-determination – whatever that meant.
It felt real as we recited that Simbule line ad infinitum, finding hope and triumph in words that, we now know, had no practical effect on Her Majesty’s Government.
But Rhodesia’s fate was sealed once you took charge of the struggle – you and comrade Tongogara – after Herbert Chitepo was assassinated in Lusaka in 1975.
Yes, that was our man – Tongogara! Even his name had that powerful sound that accorded him bravery and invincibility. Tongogara was our cult figure, the man who was destined to destroy the ugliness of Ian Smith’s regime.
In the heady days of the Lancaster House Talks in 1979, I was rooting for you and Tongogara, for you were the only ones who were talking about total freedom of the Zimbabweans and the freedom and democracy of the African.
Our romance with hoped-for freedom persuaded many that post-1980 Zimbabwe might be different from the republics to the north. However, by then I had become rather skeptical about Africa’s democratic future. So I recall telling a Ndebele lady friend, married to an English-Zimbabwean, that my prayer was that Zimbabwe would not take the path of autocratic rule that had ruined most of Africa.
She reacted angrily. How dare I lump Zimbabwe with the basket cases to the north? Of course Zimbabwe would never suffer the foolishness of places like Uganda, she declared as we sipped tea in her house in Maseru, Lesotho. She soon stopped talking to my wife and I, for we were spoilers of the fairy tale. Her name was Thandiwe.
Notwithstanding my cautious optimism, I remained giddy with joy and hope as you held court in London during those last months of 1979. I hoped that Thandiwe was right.
My world crumbled when news reached us that Tongagara had been killed in a car crash on December 26, 1979. You know what immediately came to mind, of course! You know what is still on my mind 37 years later. Tongogara dying on that Mozambican highway, less than a week after Lancaster House? Tongogara, the soldier who was expected to become the first president of Zimbabwe, dead just as the proverbial trumpets were sounding on the outskirts of Salisbury? Dead in an accident? Really?
In the event, you took charge on April 18, 1980, one of those unforgettable days of hoarse voices and tears and laughter as we sang and shouted and ululated with the confidence that freedom had come at last.
My wife and I visited Zimbabwe in July 1980, three months after independence. We were thrilled and filled with great pride. Everything worked! Palpable confidence.
But soon things changed. The bloody battles in Matabeleland promptly set me on a hunt for my friend Thandiwe. That was her homeland, to which she and her husband had returned. Was she safe? Not a word. I have never heard of her since.
Happily, not even that hard and bloody first decade after independence dimmed your democratic spirit. Do you remember your words at the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting in Harare on October 16, 1991? You said: “We must recognize the urgent need for democracy throughout the commonwealth and the insistent demand by millions for social justice and respect for the fundamental rights of people and nations. Indeed, when we ourselves individually or collectively betray our principles, we cannot proclaim ourselves as champions of human rights wherever they are being violated.”
The following day, 2000 University of Zimbabwe students marched downtown to the Commonwealth meeting, to protest your Government’s recent takeover of their University. Police truncheons, rifles and tear gas persuaded the students to go back and quit disturbing the tranquil conditions under which democracy and human rights were being discussed in the people’s hall. Many students ended up on the trauma wards of Harare Hospitals.
When a journalist asked you to comment on the students’ demands, you replied: “They are a few drunken louts.” You then returned to the meeting hall to give another tear-inducing speech about the need to protect the fundamental human rights of all citizens of the world.
More than twenty-five years after that meeting, you are still at it, leading the struggle to establish democracy and defend the human rights of your people. Yes, I know, a few million drunken louts tell a story of great repression and deep suffering. But they need to know that 37 years in power is not an easy task. In fact, it is a thankless one when a man gives up the joys of retirement to continue serving his people, and all he gets is criticism and calls for him to step down.
Well, as Muammar Gaddafi told our mutual friend in Kampala:”Revolutionaries don’t retire or resign.” Gaddafi didn’t. Our friend in Uganda is not about to. Why should you? In any case, it is not in your hands. You made it clear in 2008 when you said: “Only God who appointed me will remove me, not the MDC, not the British.”
Now, I must confess that I still do not understand how you do it. I look at my father, only three years your senior, long, long retired from all work. I cannot imagine him taking responsibility for the lives of others. Not that he would not want to. He just can’t do it.
Yet here you are, preparing to offer yourself, once again, to be candidate for president of Zimbabwe in next year’s elections. You will be 94. That is patriotism. We toast to your continued health, and pray for Zimbabwe!
Oh, by the way, Tongogara would have been 79 this month. You know what I am thinking – and still asking.