September 22, 2003

Simon Muzenda +

Simon Muzenda, who died on Saturday aged 80, was Zimbabwe's vice-president and one of the less colourful but more important members of the ruling Zanu PF; he played a vital role as a backroom power-broker among the clique whose personal loyalty to President Robert Mugabe remained unquestioning and steadfast even as the country descended into political turmoil and economic chaos. Muzenda's organisational and administrative skills were largely responsible for healing the bitter rifts within Zanu during the guerrilla war in the 1970s that led to the transition from white-ruled Rhodesia to black-ruled Zimbabwe. The movement's then leader, the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, caused turmoil among the thousands of freedom fighters massed on Rhodesia's borders by renouncing violence as a means to power. Muzenda, released from prison with other leaders during the Anglo-Rhodesian peace negotiations in 1971, travelled to every guerrilla camp in neighbouring countries, calming fractious elements and organising a key meeting of the divided leadership that eventually confirmed Robert Mugabe, then in hiding in Mozambique, as the new Zanu leader.

Mugabe's ascent to power in Zimbabwe was in no small measure due to Muzenda's efforts. He rewarded the quietly-spoken former carpenter by making him his deputy prime minister and foreign minister upon independence in 1980, and later his vice-president. As a leading political figure among the Karanga people, the largest of the sub-groups making up the Shona-speaking people of Zimbabwe, Muzenda's support was vital in keeping the sprawling south eastern Midlands region of the country loyal to Mugabe, a member of the rival Zezuru clan. Some of the younger and more ambitious Karanga leaders had hoped that Muzenda would make his own bid for the country's leadership, but he remained a faithful friend and second-in-command to Mugabe to the end. The Karanga people were regarded as the most arrogant of the tribal sub-groups. Their leaders frequently laid claim to being the true founders of the nation, and they were viewed with suspicion by other Shona-speaking people as they had been seen to co-operate with the first white pioneers and settlers sent by Cecil Rhodes to colonise the country. The Karanga had also intermingled and inter-married with earlier black invaders, the Matabele people, who had occupied the south west of the country in the late 19th century. Joshua Nkomo, the political figurehead of the Ndebele people, was seen by himself and by many others, including Britain, as the natural leader of the future Zimbabwe but Karanga support was a vital component of his bid for power at independence. It was not forthcoming as Simon Muzenda had pinned his flag firmly to the Mugabe mast. Nkomo was thus condemned to play second fiddle to his Shona rival.

Never regarded as an original thinker or orator, Muzenda was given to parroting Robert Mugabe's more outrageous utterances as well as giving unreserved backing to the more disastrous policies. When Mugabe condemned homosexuals as being "no better than pigs or dogs", Muzenda frequently repeated the condemnation, insisting that homosexuality had been introduced to Africa by "white colonialists". When Mugabe, stung by the mounting criticism of his rule, decided to muzzle his own independent press and curb the activities of foreign correspondents, Muzenda told journalists: "Those who want to tarnish our country's image through inaccurate reporting in the Western-backed media should have the courage to answer charges about their malicious political campaigns in courts of law." As the Mugabe regime openly flouted democratic principles, subverting the judiciary and brutally crushing opposition politics, Muzenda told an election rally in his home region of Masvingo - formerly Fort Victoria - that if Zanu PF chose to put up a baboon as a candidate "then you will vote for that baboon". Zanu members had fought and died to win power and were not going to hand over the country to "so called opposition sponsored by foreigners". Despite failing health and offers of a generous retirement package, Muzenda insisting on staying on in government "to see the successful conclusion of the land redistribution programme", a reference to Robert Mugabe's seizure of white farms which precipitated Zimbabwe's slide to ruin. The "redistribution" had less to do with a more equitable deal for the landless than for Mugabe, his military chiefs and his faithful clique to grab the most valuable real estate in the country for themselves and their families. Muzenda did not hesitate to take advantage of the land grab. In 2002 he ordered a successful white farmer off his cattle ranch south of Harare. He allowed the farmer to take "his household goods and furniture but nothing else", leaving the prosperous acreage with its livestock, crops, equipment, farmhouse and outbuildings as a "gift" for the ageing vice-president. By most accounts, it was the third such property appropriated by Muzenda and members of his family.

Simon Vengai Muzenda was born on October 28 1922, to a family of peasant farmers in the Gutu district of what was then the Victoria province of a Rhodesia then firmly under British colonial rule. He was brought up by his grandmother who ensured his regular attendance at a local Catholic missionary school, and he spent his teenage years herding the family's cattle. A relatively bright child, he was sent for teacher training and on the advice of his tutor travelled to the Marianhill mission in Natal where he showed an aptitude for carpentry. At Marianhill, between completing his carpentry course and furthering his studies, he developed an awareness of politics from fellow students, including several men who became prominent in black activism in South Africa and Rhodesia. He returned to Rhodesia in 1950, working in a furniture factory in Bulawayo and becoming involved with Benjamin Burombo, one of the earliest black activists to challenge discriminatory laws.

By 1955, Muzenda and his wife, a nurse, had moved to the Midlands town of Umvuma where he started his own carpentry business, continuing his involvement in black political activity and eventually becoming administrative secretary of the embryo Zimbabwe African National Union. He was soon attracting the attention of the Rhodesian security police and spent two years in Salisbury's central prison which he later described as "a place of study" as he and other inmates completed their education. In 1964, having been elected deputy organising secretary of Zanu, he was arrested again for being in possession of a pistol. By this time he was committed to the cause of armed revolution as the only way to topple white colonial dominance and was active in organising young blacks to leave the country for military training elsewhere in Africa, the Soviet Union and China. He was soon imprisoned again and remained incarcerated until being released under the Anglo-Rhodesia agreement in 1971. Muzenda then travelled throughout Africa in an attempt to heal the deep divisions within the black nationalist movement. He failed to draw Joshua Nkomo and his Zapu movement into a unified political front and eventually backed Robert Mugabe as Zanu-Patriotic Front leader. The subsequent guerrilla war culminated in the Lancaster House negotiations, a brief interregnum of British rule as democratic elections were organised, and the election of Mugabe as the first president of an independent Zimbabwe. Muzenda was criticised - and challenged - by many Karanga leaders during the post-independence period but he used his status to retain political power in his home area, repeatedly delivering the Karanga heartland to the Mugabe camp. His health was always a problem and in the last decade he often visited China for prolonged treatment for heart, lung and liver complaints. He is survived by his widow, Maud, and seven children. (Daily Telegraph, UK)

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