By Field Ruwe
Anxiously, I waited as Cyril Ramaphosa announced the names of leaders present, but before he got to Zambia, I saw Guy Scott in the VIP locale and my heart sank into the pit of my stomach. When I first read that Sata would rather attend Kenya Jubilee celebrations than celebrate the life of the world’s most revered statesman, I began to think there was something terribly wrong with our president. I prayed that he changes his mind and joins other world leaders in sending off an extraordinary black man, a colossus, a global icon who is African. To the shock and horror of many, he did not.
Why do we have a president? This is perhaps one of the simplest yet profound questions. The answer has always been because we need an arbitrator, a trailblazer, and in times of war, a commander-in-chief. The person we choose becomes our front, our image, our chief representative. In this case we chose Michael Chilufya Sata to serve as our vanguard and conduit for reaching the world. His actions and decisions are therefore at the heart of our personal lives. If he acts inappropriately the world laughs at us; if he improves our lives, the world applauds him; and if his achievements go beyond world expectations, the world treats him like Mandela.
When Sata failed to show up at Mandela’s memorial many people were left scratching their heads, more so when Zambia High Commissioner to Kenya Mumbi Phiri announced that Sata would be traveling to Nairobi for the Golden Jubilee, a day after the Mandela service. For those who thought our president had lost it, cannot be blamed. As for me, I thought he was the usual daring leader without discernment who was making the greatest blunder of his life based on his ego; that his bold and thoughtless decisions were at work. After all, he has the reputation of being unpredictable and impulsive. I feared that the world would laugh at us for putting such an insensitive man at the helm.
Let’s face it; if there was a historic occasion that called for the presence of our president, this was it. We, more than any country in the world are largely responsible for securing the release of Mandela and the eventual destruction of apartheid. Mandela said so himself. Upon his release from Robben Island, he picked not Tanzania, Ethiopia, Cuba, Russia, or the USA, but Zambia for his first foreign tour in 27 years. On February 28, 1990, Mandela arrived in Lusaka to thank us. He reminded the world that it was from Lusaka that the ANC’s “remarkable team of men” built the organization into a powerful force. With the patience and cooperation of Zambians they executed their plans to the point “where we feel we are on the edge of a breakthrough in our struggle for freedom.”
Yes, Zambia became a seat for the ANC in exile. Between 1964 and 1991, we accommodated the ANC’s executive committee members including Jacob Zuma who was housed in Woodlands, Thabo Mbeki in Makeni, and Oliver Tambo in the former colonial governor’s house at State House. Others included Alfred Nzo, Commander Joe Modise, Chris Hani, Mac Maharaj, Moses Kotane, Duma Nokwe, Mzwai Piliso, Mendy Msimang, Moses Mabhida, Themba Mqota, Mark Shope, Tennyson Makiwane, and Jimmy Hadebe. These men with their families called their flight to Zambia “the pilgrimage to Lusaka,” and so did thousands of South African refugees. They were found in almost all residential areas—Emmasdale, Avondale, Lilanda, Matero, Kabwata, Libala, Kaunda Square, and even in shanties. They used some of the houses as “MHQ Underground” (MHQ=Umkhonto we Sizwe Headquarters), or “Special Ops” from which sabotage strategies were planned.
In 1967, the ANC and ZAPU of the now Zimbabwe formed an alliance known as the MK-ZAPRA (later ZIPRA) force to fight the Rhodesian and South African governments side by side. The merge put our lives in danger. Rhodesian and South African forces began to infiltrate our country, destroying lives and property.
Who can forget October 19, 1978? On this day, the Rhodesian Air Force took over all our airports, and launched a series of raids on ZIPRA training camps in what became known as “Operation Gatling” conducted with the support of the South African government. Bombs fell on us indiscriminately. The emergency wing of UTH was turned into a sea of blood. It is believed 3,000 people, some of them Zambians died on that day alone, and many were maimed. Rhodesia and South African killings, invasions, raids, blasting of roads, and burning of villages continued until KK met P.W. Botha in 1982. In the end we lost many lives and our economy tanked.
When Mandela embarked on his tour, Commonwealth heads of state, including Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal, travelled to Lusaka, Zambia to meet him. It was a proud moment for KK and Zambia, a country Mandela, in his words of gratitude, referred to as “the Switzerland of Africa” for its sacrifices. He clearly recognized the human and economic cost we endured. For that, we won a permanent place in his heart and in the hearts of countless South Africans. It is with our sacrifice in mind, and in honor of all those who perished, that President Sata should have put other commitments aside and travelled to Pretoria together with KK. Yes, KK did, but that was by far enough.
It just didn’t feel right to send VP Guy Scott to represent us for various reasons, one being that he is a man despised by South Africans for his off-color remarks about South Africans being backward. Lest we forget, here are Scott’s own words: “The South Africans are very backward in terms of historical development. I hate South Africans. That’s not a fair thing to say because I like a lot of South Africans but they really think they’re the bees’ knees and actually they’ve been the cause of so much trouble in this part of the world.” With these words he fell out of favor and damaged our relations with the South Africans. At the memorial Scott was the unwelcome guest.
Now, there are some who might be quick to defend the president, many who are his cadres, die-hards, “pain for gain” beneficiaries, and those who naturally love him through thick and thin. They will foolishly say they see nothing wrong with sending Scott to the memorial. Sadly, Zambian politics blindfolds the mind and impedes critical and reasonable thinking. A party leader wins and his followers build a brick-brained wall of blind loyalty and strongly support any poor or foolish decision, regardless. That is what is wrong with us. We treat politics like a religion. The leader becomes a demi-god. He is immortal. We kneel, bow, kiss his feet, and render a nod of stubborn idiocy. We are totally at his mercy and “shall surely follow him” even when he causes us shame or leads us into the abyss. Such is the paradox of blind loyalty.
“You don’t know the reason why the president delegated Scott,” someone might say. And this is where the problem lies. It is most likely that the person who says thus may not know either. But if the past is anything to go by, we should know who we are dealing with. President Sata truly believes he has got us in his thrall. His attitude and actions reflect his deep conviction that he is indispensable; that he owns us and therefore owes us no explanation or apology. We have instilled this perception in his mind. We have created in him a cult of personality that makes him behave like an insensitive tyrant.
Surely, if Sata was not invited to the memorial, he should have informed us. We would have taken it upon ourselves to protest, attack President Zuma and call him the most ungrateful leader on earth and demand he pays reparations for our sacrifice. If Sata had chosen not to travel because he disliked Nelson Mandela, he should have advanced the reasons for their differences. If indeed he was feeling fatigued or unwell he should have posted a press statement. Whatever the reason, we, his humble servants should have been informed. He didn’t, and he won’t, which is a great shame really.
Nevertheless, it was gratifying to see hundreds of planes emerge out of the African sky, carrying with them heads of state from Obama of the U.S. to Xanana Gusmao of the small country of East Timor. Even Hamid Karzai from war-torn Afghanistan and the aging Robert Mugabe found time to travel to Pretoria to memorialize Mandela, an African whose humility, and visionary leadership, touched the lives of billions on earth. The moral conscious of more than 100 world leaders required that they attend. For once it felt great to be African, and wished it could last a lifetime. Thanks Nelson.
Field Ruwe is a US-based Zambian media practitioner, historian, and author. He is a PhD candidate at George Fox University and serves as an adjunct professor (lecturer) in Boston. ©Ruwe2012