A tribute to Hashim Mbita

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THE saddest thing that the former Executive Secretary of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU’s) Liberation Committee, the late Hashim Mbita ever said was when he remarked to some visiting dignitaries he was surprised anyone still remembered him. Because he changed our lives, we will not forget him. I remember Hashim Mbita from an invisible position amidst a thousand or more young men and women gathered for parade at Nyadzonia that morning in 1975. That was the first time we saw him. He was accompanied by ZANLA’s Rex Nhongo, ZIPRA’s Nikita Mangena and some senior political and military leaders from FRELIMO. He had come to announce the formation of ZIPA, an amalgamation of fighters from ZAPU and ZANU, to re-start the war that had been stalled and brought to a stand-still by the detenté exercise. They were all in military fatigues. From that distance, he was a jovial man who emphasised his points with huge gestures of the arms. He spoke at length about freedom, stressing the importance of unity in our struggle. And then he became philosophical: the constant factor about revolutions was perpetual motion and not this surrounding stagnation. He said revolutions had in-built mechanisms for self-regeneration, continually refining themselves and giving birth to additional leaders. He talked about the primacy of war because it had forced Ian Smith to the negotiating table on the train at Victoria Falls. He paused. We all looked at him, mesmerised. And then he declared unequivocally that freedom came from the barrel of the gun. I saw George Chiweshe, a short distance to my left, lean forward and whisper something in Christopher Mutsvangwa’s ear and they both nodded their heads. Who was this man speaking like this? Hashim Mbita was mind-blowing! If ZIPA was created by Julius Nyerere, Samora Machel and Kenneth Kaunda, then Hashim Mbita constructed and turned it into reality. In our case, he hopped from Dar Es Salaam to Lusaka, from Maputo to Gaborone, juggling the difficult pieces, trying to achieve the unimaginable. But above all, he wanted to ensure we had the logistical support we required to fight the war. So that when the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border was eventually opened and became a new war front, it was under Mbita’s watchful eye. ZIPA was a daring experiment to unite the nationalist forces involved in the struggle for Zimbabwe, beginning with the armed forces. The experiment collapsed a year later, but the war had started and gathering momentum. So how could Mbita be surprised we still remember him? Namibia’s SWAPO certainly remember him; Mozambique’s FRELIMO too. Even South Africa’s ANC must surely remember him. But with the ANC, one can’t be entirely certain. They can suddenly turn around and say they don’t quite remember him. Isn’t xenophobia anchored on pretending not to know who your neighbour is? At Morogoro, ZAPU’s main training camp in Tanzania, Hashim Mbita played the difficult balancing act, but the old tensions between ZAPU and ZANU followed to haunt us. We underwent two different training programmes and virtually lived two separate lives even though we stayed in one camp and ate from the same pot and there was nothing Hashim Mbita could do about that. But we talked and even maintained friendships across the invisible political divide. For example, the Mutizwa brothers from Highfield, Wonder and Chester; we were together at Kutama. Our brief and occasional conversations left me with a hanging feeling there was something else we should have talked about. There was also Skumbuzo Gumede from Kambuzuma. Although he was at Goromonzi, we met during the holidays at the municipal library and played basketball at the social club. At Morogoro, we acknowledged each other with a silent thumbs-up, nothing more. The Mutizwa brothers survived the war. I last saw Skumbuzo at Morogoro. I wonder what happened to Skumbuzo. I remember Ambrose Mutinhiri because he was the director of training. Although he stayed at the camp, he never came to talk to us. I also remember Phelekezela Mpoko because he was the director of logistics and supplies. We saw them from a distance as they queued ahead of us at the kitchen to collect their meals. Hashim Mbita watched his dream go up in smoke the day the tensions boiled over and there was a fierce shootout and several people died. He came to the disused army barracks in the little town of Morogoro where we had been moved, livid with anger, frothing at the mouth. He asked what we were doing to ourselves thousands of miles away from home. He asked whether that was what we had been sent here to do, to fight each other. And then he laughed derisively and said Ian Smith was enjoying every bit of the sickening drama. The Zimbabwe Defence Forces Commander, General Constantine Chiwenga and Police Commissioner-General, Augustine Chihuri who were part of our instructors, looked down and said nothing. They must have been overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the task that they were expected to achieve. But it seemed Mbita had not lost hope because in his voice, you detected a strong sense of belief that he could still stitch together the broken pieces. The task eventually required the monumental statesmanship of Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe to achieve when they signed the Unity Accord in 1987. Hashim Mbita should have died on May 25, the day that Africa set aside to remember its tragic past of slavery and colonisation and how its founding fathers fought to bring a happy ending to the story. For Southern Africa, Mbita bore the burden of translating that dream into reality. The time he came here as Ambassador and there was a picture of him sporting a suit in the papers, I had difficulty recognising him because the man whose image was etched on my mind was a soldier in military camouflage. Mbita was more than a soldier, he was a pan-Africanist but above all, he was a revolutionary. When Zimbabwe conferred him with its highest honour, the Royal Order of Munhumutapa, it was because there was no higher tribute to bestow him. If it was true we had forgotten him as he lamented, history would retrieve him from oblivion to take his rightful place alongside Africa’s great statesmen like Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Samora Machel, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Leopold Senghor, Emperor Haile Selassie. Somewhere in Namibia’s SWAPO, somewhere in Mozambique’s FRELIMO, somewhere in Angola’s MPLA , somewhere in South Africa’s ANC, many people have stories to tell about Hashim Mbita, and each story different from the next, no matter how small, such as this one. There is no way we can forget Hashim Mbita. He was a hero. For views and comments, email, alexkanengoni@gmail.com

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