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Thursday, 27 August 2009

John Mwanakatwe (Nov1926 - Aug 2009)

A mini biography of the late John Mwanakwate who passed away this week (another mini-bio can be found here) :

Mwanakatwe : Passing of an intellectual, Alvin Chiinga, Daily Mail, Commentary :

He was a respected academic and eminent politician who was arguably one of Zambia’s best and longest serving public servants, both before and after independence.

Over five decades in public life, he scored several successes which will remain etched on the minds of many, especially those who rubbed shoulders with him.
Prominent lawyer John Mupanga Mwanakatwe will also be remembered for his humility. He was humble, despite his achievements.

Among the ‘firsts’ that he managed to score even at a tender age of 24 was being the first African to obtain a university degree in 1951 from the University of Fort Hare in South Africa.

This was a remarkable achievement at a time when university degrees were a preserve of colonial masters. Very few Africans would have dreamt of such an achievement.

Mr Mwanakatwe was born on November 1, 1926 in Chinsali, Northern Province.

He died on August 23, 2009 after suffering a stroke. He is survived by three children and his burial takes place today, which has also been declared a day of national mourning.

Mr Mwanakatwe’s father came from Abercon (Mbala). He was a teacher who completed an elementary school course and later qualified as a certificated teacher responsible for supervising village schools.

Perhaps the attribute that made John Mwanakatwe rise so high in his academic qualifications was enrolling early in school at about seven years.

Then, going to school at seven was rare. In his autobiography, he mentions that it was not easy for him to get into school at that age. But his father was a teacher. That contributed.

“I had a difficult time enrolling into standard one at Munali training centre because of my age,’’ he said.

Mr Mwanakatwe pursued teaching from 1947 to 1948 at Adams College, also in South Africa.

His passion to further his education kept burning and it helped him to attain a university degree. Mr Mwanakatwe started climbing the career ladder in the education system in Zambia at a time when the civil service was dominated by whites.

His first stint in the education sector was at Chalimbana Teacher Training Centre, east of Lusaka before he moved to his former school, Munali.

This was to be the beginning of a high-flying career in the public service which saw Mr Mwanakatwe move from Munali to Kasama Secondary School when he was promoted as head teacher in 1957.

In 1960, Mr Mwanakatwe was promoted to Education Officer in Livingstone, a job he described as challenging and taxing.

It was here that political ‘eyes’ started seeing young Mwanakatwe as a potential contributor to the liberation struggle which was gaining momentum. Southern Province was one of the hotbeds of the liberation struggle.

As his experience and influence in the civil service grew, his superiors felt it was important to expose him to even more challenging tasks.

The office of the Northern Rhodesia Commission in London which was looking at the welfare of African students in the United Kingdom offered him a job as assistant commissioner. He did not hesitate to take up the job and relocated to the United Kingdom a year later.

Typical of an ambitious and progressive personality, Mr Mwanakatwe only had a one year stint in the United Kingdom as he had to return home to concentrate on the liberation struggle.

In 1962, he resigned as assistant Commissioner and this meant that he had to leave the public service, at least for that period.

Mr Mwanakatwe had by now positioned himself to work with the more aggressive United National Independence Party to fight for independence.

In his autobiography, he says his father told him politics was supposed to be for older people. He did not give in to his father’s reasoning and worked with first republican president, Dr Kenneth Kaunda, in fighting for independence.

Their endurance was rewarded. In the first African government in Zambia, Mr Mwanakatwe was appointed Education minister.

Mr Mwanakatwe championed the establishment of the University of Zambia and presided over one of the fastest growing education sectors in Africa.

Dr Kaunda had his first cabinet reshuffle in 1968 after independence and Mr Mwanakatwe was moved to the Ministry of Lands and mines.

Then he served as secretary general of the government, the equivalent of secretary to the cabinet now.

In October 1970, he was assigned a new portfolio as minister of finance. It was here that Mr Mwanakatwe had his first experience of what he calls Dr Kaunda’s steadfastness in running government.

He says Dr Kaunda wrote a lengthy letter just after appointing him, warning him to beware of crooks.

“Even crooks will be well dressed when they come to see you. But you should not be deceived by their style of dress or what they say,’’ part of Dr Kaunda’s letter to Mr Mwanakatwe reads.

Mr Mwanakatwe had a lot of challenges building an economy in its infancy, without any background in economics. But he relied heavily on his common sense and team work.

After working for three years at the Ministry of Finance, Mr Mwanakatwe decided to quit politics in 1973 and start his law career. He joined Jacques and Partners, a prominent law firm with representation in major towns.

When he left the Ministry of Finance, he declined re- appointment and was requested by Dr Kaunda to serve as chairperson of the Salaries Inquiry Commission in the public service. He bounced back as minister of finance from May 1976-1978.

In 1979, he teamed up with Bervin Willombe,Willa Mung’omba and his wife Linda to establish a law firm called MMW. Among some of the people the firm represented were those implicated in the foiled 1980 coup plot.

After the end of the Kaunda era, Mr Mwanakatwe joined the Movement for Multi- Party Democracy and after the 1991 landslide victory, new president Fredrick Chiluba envisaged appointing him to a senior position in government but he declined because he was aging.

Mr Mwanakatwe said in his autobiography that he only accepted the position of the Zambia Privitisation Agency chairperson to help the MMD execute the massive privatisation programme it had embarked on. He said this was less involving compared to occupying a senior government position.

Mr Mwanakatwe also served as chancellor of the University of Zambia in 1992. He was happy to serve an institution he had helped to found.

He later served as chairman of the Constitutional Review Commission. Apart from his autobiography, he is author of two landmark publications in Zambia: The Growth of Education in Zambia since Independence (OUP, 1968) and End of Kaunda Era (Multimedia, 1994).

His autobiography chronicles his personal experience of politics, development and the role of legal practitioners in providing effective safeguards for civil liberties in Zambia.

It talks about his belief in hard work, engagement in public life and affirmation in human endeavour, which he considers essential for both personal and national development.

President Rupiah Banda describes Mr Mwanakatwe as a believer in the cause of the nation as he served in various government portfolios with dignity.

“I have learnt with sorrow the untimely death of Mr John Mwanakatwe, who will be remembered as a beacon of peace, unity and hard work among other things,’’ President Banda said in his message.

Mpulungu Member of Parliament, Lameck Chibombamilimo says Mr Mwanakatwe’s service to Mpulungu constituency where he was MP in the 70s for many years speaks volumes of his commitment to improving the living standards of the Zambian people.

“In recognition of his contributions, a full council of Mpulungu sitting on July 30 this year unanimously resolved to name a high school under construction after him,’’ Mr Chibombamilimo says.

Family Spokesperson Robinson Sikazwe describes Mr Mwanakatwe as an inspiration and a role model to the family because of his immense contribution to the country.

Mr Sikazwe said Mr Mwanakatwe was dependable in every sense, especially that he was regarded as an elder in the family.

“Everybody depended on him for wisdom. Whenever the family needed counsel, he was there to assist. He did not discriminate.”

Mr Sikazwe says Mr Mwanakatwe was a pillar of the family and will be greatly missed.

As Mr Mwanakatwe is buried today, his name will go down in the annals of history as a man who applied himself fully from the humble beginnings of a teacher, politician to an accomplished lawyer.


  1. John Mwanakatwe's humility was such that he stopped for a chat with anyone who recognised him. He would never turn anybody down because he or she was a nobody or because he, himself, was what he was. If only all our politicians were like him, Zambia would be a different, and definitely, a better place. RIP JMM.

  2. I loved as if he were my own father... Boy how I will miss him! And to think that I never met him in person. I look forward to seeing him at the feet of the God we both love.

  3. We always miss him.


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