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Friday, 10 October 2008

Remembering Harry Mwanga Nkumbula

Its 25 years since the death of Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula. Neo Simutanyi discusses his contributions to Zambia's political history. To be sure, the assessment glances over key negatives (ethnic politics and ANC led violence), but in general its an important contribution. I certainly agree that it is a shame how Zambia has treated its fallen heroes like Nkumbula and Kapwepwe :

Harry M Nkumbula memorial, Neo Simutanyi, The Post (subscription), Commentary :

October 8 2008 marks 25 years since the death of Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula. Harry Nkumbula was leader of the African National Congress (ANC) for close to thirty years and made a significant contribution to national independence and opposition politics. He was fondly referred to as Old Harry, Old Lion or the Father of Zambian nationalism. But, like many other liberation heroes, his contribution has remained largely ignored and his stamp on Zambian politics marginalised by successive governments.

There are many accounts of the contribution of Old Harry to Zambian politics from the late 1947 till the end of the 1970s. These accounts differ in their complexion depending on the political lens one is wearing. However, one thing that stands out is that Harry Nkumbula provided political leadership to the African people to resist colonial rule and radicalised African resistance.

He identified and recruited Kenneth Kaunda, Dixon Konkola, Robinson Puta and others into the leadership of the ANC in the early 1950s and mentored them. He was strongly opposed to the proposal for a Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and in 1953 led the ANC in burning the White Paper and called on two days of national prayer and general strike. Earlier he had led a delegation to London to oppose the colonial government’s constitutional proposals and was able to mobilise financial contributions for the trip from party members and supporters.

In 1958 he faced a rebellion from a much younger leadership that demanded a more radical approach to fighting for independence. When self-government was granted in 1962 Nkumbula was gracious in accepting to form a coalition government with UNIP.

But in elections held in January 1964 UNIP won the majority seats in the national assembly and Nkumbula’s ANC was consigned to the role of official opposition. In the first multiparty phase (1964-72) Old Harry’s politics was based on three main policy platforms: opposed undemocratic tendencies and the one-party state; promoted a liberal and free-market economic system and mocked UNIP’s ‘socialist’ policies as inefficient and unsustainable and encouraged people-involvement in party affairs.

The policy debates between UNIP and the ANC during the 1960s were robust and parliament became a forum for criticism of government policy. Despite being unable to win nation-wide support, somehow the ANC under Old Harry provided a credible political alternative to UNIP and posed a serious challenge to UNIP’s hold on power in a number of regions, including, Eastern, Southern, Copperbelt and Western Provinces.

By the end of the 1960s with UNIP facing internal power struggles, opposition politics gained ascendancy. Splits within UNIP leading to the formation of United Party and United Progressive Party (UPP) the ruling party’s hold on power was seriously threatened. UNIP that had previously committed itself not to introduce a one-party state by legislation panicked by harassing opposition activists with detention, denial of access to markets and loan facilities from state-controlled financial institutions.

The policy ‘it pays to belong to UNIP’ brought untold suffering to opposition activists. A UNIP cabinet minister was to say this: ‘It pays to belong to UNIP. Non-supporters of UNIP will never get jobs in government, cooperatives, labour movement and all places.’ Is this not familiar in our current politics under a multiparty political system?

As this policy of victimisation of opposition activists took its toll, many ANC leaders began to reconsider their positions. They felt marginalised by the UNIP-controlled political system and the only way they could enjoy the fruits of independence was to align with the ruling party. In 1972 the ANC signed a historic agreement with UNIP to dissolve and get integrated into UNIP.

A similar process took place in Zimbabwe in 1987 with the opposition ZAPU led by Joshua Nkomo being swallowed by the ruling Zanu-PF. In Zambia the Choma Declaration was signed to end opposition politics and prepare for a one-party state. Nkumbula who had viciously opposed the one-party state was brought into submission by his restless officials who felt that their stay in opposition had disadvantaged them. He was a reluctant participant in the event and only went along with his party because he believed in democracy. It should be recalled that Nkumbula had earlier unsuccessfully petitioned the Lusaka High Court to declare the introduction of a one-party state unconstitutional.

Having joined UNIP, he was to be barred from contesting the UNIP presidency in 1978 when changes were made to the UNIP constitution to increase the minimum number of years to qualify to contest from two to five years. He unsuccessfully challenged the UNIP decision with Simon Kapwepwe. He later left public life and led a quiet life until his death in 1983.

He left behind a legacy of opposition politics which has continued to this day. Many people who were associated with ANC politics played significant roles in opposing the one-party state and were also active in the campaign for the re-introduction of a multiparty political system in 1990/91. For the past seven years the Southern Province and parts of Western province have remained opposition hotbeds. In particular, the Southern Province seems to continue the ANC tradition of sticking with one party for as long as possible, hoping that a president may come from there one day.

It is sad that the contribution of fallen heroes has not been given due attention by successive leaders. Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula was a political colossus who traversed Zambian political landscape for more than thirty years. He was a principled and fearless leader and inspired Africans to challenge the colonial government. He resisted the temptation to defect to UNIP to access material advantages and privileges. He stuck to his principles and was a thorn in the flesh of the ruling establishment. But he believed in non-violent struggle and used legal ways and the power of argument and persuasion to make his case.

Nkumbula was a highly respected nationalist leader across the continent and yet in his own country has not been recognised. No statue nor national institution has been named after him. In fact when the question of erecting a statue in honour of Nkumbula was raised in the National Assembly in 1965 a UNIP minister of Justice Justin Chimba said: “The government is not interested in building statues for ordinary politicians’. Was Nkumbula an ordinary politician?

This attitude of marginalising those who played significant roles in our freedom has continued to this day. The contributions of many fallen heroes who include Godwin Mbikusita Lewanika, Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe, Munukayumbwa Sipalo, Nalumino Mundia, Lawrence Katilungu, Dauti Yamba, Arthur Wina, Sikota Wina and many others, who played pivotal roles in the nationalist struggle have remained unrecognised. History seems to resolve around those who assumed power and yet many of them were creatures of those they marginalised.

Our politics should learn to honour our heroes irrespective of the personal differences political leaders may have had. Nkumbula was and continues to be a national institution. He helped shape Zambian politics by using his personal resources and time to organise a formidable political movement. Former president Kenneth Kaunda and Simon Kapwepwe, among others owe their ascendancy into the political limelight to Nkumbula. He may have had personal failings but he was a good political organiser, whose skills and leadership could be emulated by present-day politicians. One person close to him at the time observes that: ‘Harry removed fear in Africans to fight white rule. He was courageous’.

For Old Harry, political leaders should be able to work closely with their members. Goodwin Mwangilwa in his book Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula quotes him as having said: …If you make your members feel they are below you, you will never get anywhere’. He adds: ‘People should feel you are with them and if possible undergo the same suffering’. How many of our present-day politicians practice the kind of politics Nkumbula advocated?

We are seeing our politicians looking down on their members and literally paying for all the party expenses and support, when this could easily be borne by the membership. The days when parties were run on the basis of membership contributions are long gone. Today, party members present bills to Lusaka-based party officials for expenses which ordinarily should be borne by the local officials and membership. Nkumbula is turning in his grave as that is not the type of party organisation he championed for more than thirty years. Zambian politics has not only been commercialised, but also corrupted, especially in the last 17 years.

This week from 8th to 10th October 2008 the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in conjunction with the Lusaka National Museum and the Press Freedom Committee of The Post will be commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of Old Harry at the Lusaka National Museum. An exhibition on Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula will run from 8th-10th October 2008, while a symposium will be held on Friday 10th October 2008 at the same venue. The Symposium, which is expected to be opened by the Acting President Rupiah Banda and attended by nationalist leaders, such as former President Kaunda, will be characterised by speeches remembering Old Harry.

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