10.01.2008 0

Let Us Now Praise Not So Famous Men

  • On: 10/15/2008 14:42:24
  • In: Government Transparency
  • By Carter Clews
    Executive Editor of ALG News Bureau

    Reading the headlines coming out of Zimbabwe today is like living a nightmare that never ends. And the only surcease for this writer comes when my mind drifts back to a crisp fall day decades ago when I caught a glimpse of what freedom could have meant to the beleaguered people of that plundered nation from the man who could have spared them their heartache.

    “Ndabaningi,” I asked, then too young to be restrained and too charmed to be discreet, “I have to ask you a question, because you’re the only person I know who can answer it. And I hope it doesn’t offend you.”

    Ndabaningi Sithole, the famed “Father of African Nationalism,” and I were walking through a pastel woods of towering trees, the autumnal leaves swirling lazily around our feet. He smiled warmly, put his arm around my shoulder, and responded, “In Africa, we have a saying, ‘The student who doesn’t ask robs himself and his teacher.”

    And so, I asked. “You were raised in the jungles. You never knew freedom in your life. You had no idea what it was. And yet, you became world renowned as a relentless freedom fighter. I don’t see how something like that happens.”

    Patiently, Ndabaningi replied, “Have you ever been to the zoo and seen a caged tiger? He may have been raised from birth in captivity. He may never have roamed beyond his manmade cage. And yet, you can see in his eyes what he harbors in his soul – that inner, unquenchable yearning to be free.”

    I thought of Ndabaningi’s words when I read in the morning papers of the horrifying carnage the tyrannical Mugabe continues to wreak on Zimbabwe and its people. More than 80 victims are known to have been slaughtered in the run-up to Mugabe’s sham election. The country’s economy is in shambles. It takes millions of Zimbabwe dollars to buy a loaf of bread, with prices rising by the hour. And as many as 80 percent of the adult population is unemployed.

    It wasn’t supposed to be that way in Zimbabwe. That wasn’t the way Ndabaningi Sithole had planned it. Not that the way at all. Yet, as Ndabaningi told me in those distant woods so long ago, “I knew as far back as 1969, when Mugabe helped falsely accuse me of plotting violence against the government, that he would never bring freedom to my country. Robert Mugabe is a man with a bitter soul. To him, government is a weapon with which to bludgeon the people.”

    For his part, Ndabaningi Sithole was never a man with a bitter soul. I remember the first time I met him, standing in the lobby of the hotel where we were both attending a conference on how to win elections. He was an expansive, ebullient man. A man whose smile lit up the room and whose modesty and grace belied the greatness within his soul.

    I didn’t know then that in 1957 Ndabaningi had written what many considered the seminal work on sub-Saharan independence, African Nationalism. That short, powerful book—a remarkably balanced account of African grievances carefully intertwined with poignant calls for racial harmony — became a manual for freedom fighters throughout that oppressed continent.

    I didn’t know then that in 1959, braving the threats of white supremacists, this fearless young Christian soldier had become the outspoken president of the African Teachers Union. Or that in 1960, he had faced down death squads to help found the National Democratic Party of Rhodesia, which would sow the seeds of Zimbabwe’s independence.

    Nor did I know that this unassuming freedom fighter had spent five full years in a detention camp for helping found the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union. Or that he had spent a subsequent five-year period in prison after being convicted on trumped up charges of conspiring to assassinate Rhodesia president Ian Smith.

    Perhaps I should have known all of that. And I’m ashamed that I didn’t. All that I did know as I looked at the effusive gentleman standing in front of me in the hotel lobby was that this was a man devoid of anger and devoted with his last measure of breath to bringing freedom to the people of his homeland.

    Years after our walks and talks on that brisk fall day, a bent, but unbroken Ndabaningi Sithole tried one last time to rein in the increasingly oppressive Robert Mugabe. In 1996, Ndabaningi ran for president of Zimbabwe on a platform of limited government, free speech, and a return to the principles of a Zimbabwe united in racial harmony with “liberty and justice for all.”

    And on March 16, 1996 – in what now seems like a prelude to today’s headlines — the New York Times reported in its story on Mugabe’s sham elections, “The Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, 76, whose party holds two seats in Parliament, withdrew on Tuesday, saying Mr. Mugabe’s organization had undermined his campaign. He is under virtual house arrest on charges of attempting to assassinate Mr. Mugabe.”

    The more things change, we are told, the more they stay the same. In tortured Zimbabwe, where the proponents of Big Government have taken their self-ordained mandate to its logical extreme, that means the nightmare never ends. Unfortunately for the beleaguered people of that plundered country, my friend Ndabaningi Sithole—the man who would have, who could have brought his people freedom from oppression—died on December 12, 2000. And now, for them, there is no surcease.


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