Thabo Mbeki’s letter

Thabo Mbeki

29 October 2004
Happy 40th birthday Zambia
On 24 October, a few of us had the privilege to join the government and people of Zambia as they celebrated the 40th anniversary of the independence of this sister African country. We undertook this journey north of the Zambezi as a labour of love.
During our days of struggle against the apartheid system, Zambia provided a second home to many of our people. Throughout the long years of our struggle, its citizens daily demonstrated their readiness to stand with us until freedom was won. This principled position in favour of peace, democracy and non-racism in our country, imposed many sacrifices on the Zambian people, including loss of life and subversion of its economy.
Even before independence in 1964, the Zambian liberation movement, led by Kenneth Kaunda, and originally constituted by the Northern Rhodesia African National Congress, had acted in solidarity with our own African National Congress. It received, protected and helped to transport to the then Tanganyika of Julius Nyerere the very first combatants of Umkhonto we Sizwe, who left our country from 1961 onwards, to train in Africa and elsewhere in the world as our people’s soldiers for liberation.
Subsequently, and for more than 20 years, Zambia hosted the external headquarters of our movement, the ANC. It was from its capital city, Lusaka, that in 1990 we flew back to our own country, in a Zambia Airways plane lent to us by President Kaunda and his government, to begin the process of negotiations and finally end the long years of exile and the even longer years of white minority domination. Even as we left this second home to return to our native land, we knew that the bonds of virtual kinship between us and the Zambian people would never be broken.
When we spoke during the 40th anniversary festivities, we also conveyed profound thanks to the Zambian people on behalf of the peoples of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola. This was because Zambia had played a pivotal role in the struggle for the liberation of these sister peoples and fellow combatants, as it had done with regard to ours.
It was therefore very moving to see among the honoured guests of the President of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa, the first President of independent Zambia, and outstanding African statesman and patriot, Dr Kenneth David Kaunda – KK – the very first recipient of our esteemed Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo, who had educated his people to accept the struggle for the total liberation of Africa as their own.
In his presence, surrounded by the happy celebratory mood so evident on the faces of the Zambian people, we could not but wish that two of KK’s comrades and close friends, Julius Mwalimu Nyerere and Oliver Tambo, could have been among the celebrants, mixing freely with the hero people of Zambia.
Two striking messages stood out among the sentiments the Zambian people communicated about the meaning to them of their 40 years of freedom from colonialism.
One of these was the repeated passionate reference to the gift of peace that Zambia had enjoyed in its four decades of freedom, even as the then colonisers and oppressors worked hard to impose the war on Zambia they were waging against those they had colonised and subjected to apartheid domination.
Even those in their twenties, born long after their country gained its freedom, gave thanks that free Zambia had been spared the pain of civil war and conflicts generated by military dictatorship brought about by coups d’ etat.
Those of the older generation who had fought for Zambia’s independence also spoke about the humiliation and indignity that colonial domination had imposed on the Zambian people. They spoke of 40 years during which their people had experienced a life free of the humiliation and indignity of racial superiority and oppression, and of the immeasurable value that attaches to the recovery of the dignity of the African masses.
Four decades of familiarity with the experience of domestic peace and human dignity had not bred contempt for these extraordinary gifts! Time has not dulled the sensitivity of the people of Zambia to the fundamental importance of the objectives of peace and human dignity for themselves and for all Africans.
None of us, pampered guests of the Zambian government and people, could fail to hear what these masses conveyed instinctively – that they are proudly Zambian and African, regardless of the problems they continue to experience, of poverty and underdevelopment.
Two of our white compatriots, Peter and Beverly Pickford, have just published an outstanding book that affirms an almost unfathomable love for Africa and celebrates the true and complex sense of humanness that the African humanity to which they belong – integrated within its habitat -spontaneously, and without reserve, bestows as a priceless gift to itself and all other human beings, everywhere. The principal character in the book is the African soul.
The book is entitled ‘Forever Africa: A Journey from the Cape of Good Hope to Morocco’. In vivid photographs and moving words it tells of the year-long overland journey the Pickfords took, travelling from the confluence of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans at the southern tip of Africa, to the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, where it washes the African coast at Tangiers in Morocco.
Early one morning, in the fading darkness before sunrise, Peter Pickford sat alone next to a dying campfire along the Gomoti Channel within the Okavango Delta, in northern Botswana, contemplating the inevitability of death and therefore his ultimate and final separation from everything that defined his being – Africa. He has written: “It would be well, I mused to myself, that when your time is called, it should be a good time. A time like this. For each person it would be different, their good time, but this was mine. I was alone, not lonely, but where being alone makes the whole world, all of life, pivot around your own senses. There is peace in it, and you must be silent and try not to think too much, but rather to feel and let yourself drift in it. It makes me happy, not to smile, but that gut happy contentment when for that while, you and the earth and the water and the trees and the stillness are all bound in one. Life in that moment is perfect.”
If death came at the moment when you and the African earth and the water and the trees and the stillness are all bound in one, it would not be death. It would be an expression of the contentment that the life that would not die, even after death, would be perfect, because to be African is to understand that even after death, the African soul would be guaranteed a place where it and the earth and the water and the trees and the stillness would all be bound in one. Like John Donne, Peter Pickford, an African, tells the world and mortality itself – death be not proud!
An earlier commentary by the Pickfords in the same book, which refers to the fact of their having been “born into one of the last strongholds of colonialism in Africa and lived in a privileged state of which, by default, (their lives) were made”, says:
“To regard the platform of one’s life as the platform of absolute truth is to wear blinkers so tight that the light of the world passes as a shadow before you. In Africa, it is so pervasive an affliction that the continent’s richness and potential remain hidden not only to the outside world but to us who live here (in Africa).
“This affliction of blinkered perceptions is contagious, so that, in the low turning of the wheel of Africa’s history from kingdoms, civilisations and tribalism to colonial rule and then back to self-government, the world has in a singularly successful indoctrination released on our continent the most destructive force of all: Africans themselves blinded to their own virtue.”
Happily, the Zambians seemed to break out of this mould, repeatedly reaffirming Zambia’s and Africa’s richness and potential. Perhaps this was because for 40 years, they had escaped the terrible afflictions described in another 2004 book about Africa.
This book is entitled ‘A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa’. The author is an African American journalist, Howard W. French, who worked in Africa over many years, reporting for the New York Times. Writing about Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) during the years of Mobutu, he says:
“Policemen, like soldiers, went unpaid, so they took their guns and badges as licences to steal. Mobutu himself had openly sanctioned behaviour like this, once telling his unpaid army to ‘live off the land’.Theft had become the modus operandi for the entire country.Many Zairans shrugged off their degeneration, saying that things had been pretty much this way since the time of its colonisation by Belgium, and in fact, this little bit of folk wisdom wasn’t far off the mark.”
He also wrote about decay in Abacha’s Nigeria, saying: “Nigeria had become one of Africa’s most tragic stories, as if a great family franchise had been run into the ground by decadent nephews prematurely handed the reigns of management. The callow nephews in this tale were army generals, and like Midas in reverse, the officers who had run the country for the last decade had debased everything they touched, starting, of course, with politics, which they had turned into a contest of self-enrichment.”
Far worse than all this, he writes about the obscenities of the Liberian civil war, at one stage mentioning Prince Johnson, one of the rebel leaders who participated in the violent campaign that overthrew the military regime of Samuel Doe.
“Johnson’s murder of Doe on September 10, 1990, gruesome, drawn out and filmed in a herky-jerky cinema verit√© style, would become one of the signal events of West Africa’s post-independence history. As men sliced off Doe’s ears, kicked him and stabbed him, Johnson repeatedly demanded that Doe provide the numbers of the Swiss bank accounts to which Doe, in the long tradition of African dictators, had been sending off the money he stole from the treasury.
“A barely literate master sergeant, Doe had disembowelled his predecessor, William Tolbert, in a 1980 coup and summarily executed twelve senior government officials on a Monrovia beach.An awful, matching bookend for the end of the decade, the videotaped dismemberment of Doe confirmed for shocked West Africans that their politics were undergoing a hideous transformation, from the gentle venality they were long accustomed to, into a horror show of almost biblical cruelty. Few could have imagined though, that far worse was still to come.”
None of these accurate reports represent what the Pickfords described as “blinkered perceptions” of Africa. They constitute the counterpoint that inspired the people of Zambia so passionately to reaffirm their commitment to peace and respect for the dignity of the peoples of Africa.
In turn, the vision that inspires the Zambians gives the Pickfords and Howard French the possibility to reject “blinkered perceptions” of Africa, confident that ours is a continent of hope.
Howard French has written: “In the months after the fall of the Berlin wall, I occasionally tried to persuade colleagues in the press to cast the changes under way in Africa in the same epochal light that Europe was now bathing in. Africa’s dictators had been supported for decades by East and West, and were often handpicked by outside powers. Their misrule had placed the continent in the deep hole it now found itself in, not some congenital incapacity for modern governance, as decades of shallow analyses about Big Men and ‘ancient tribal animosities’ often insinuated.
“Amid talk of a ‘peace dividend’ at the end of the Cold War, I argued that the West had every bit as much of a moral obligation to try to undo some of the damage we had wrought in Africa as it did to help the Eastern Europeans. Needless to say, my arguments were ignored.
“For Europeans, Africa has always been an irresistible ‘other’. This may sound like a tautology, but that does nothing to diminish the truth. Like the indelible taint of original sin, the problem with Africa in the mind of Westerners is that it is Africa.”
Fortunate not to be imprisoned by “blinkered perceptions” of Africa, Howard French says of his book: “My aim is to help remind those who yearn to know and understand the continent better, and indeed Africans themselves, of the continent’s many cultural strengths; my own discovery of them kept me going through otherwise depressing times, injecting relief in a tableau of terrible bleakness. Therein lies a genuine source of hope for Africa’s nearly 800 million people and for the Africans of the future.”
During August, the BBC World Service published the results of a survey it had carried out in a number of African countries. The survey found that “While the rest of the world might view Africa as a continent plagued by civil wars and official corruption, and individual countries as bankrupt states with starving populations ravaged by HIV/AIDS – the Africans surveyed see themselves quite differently.
“Africans are generally positive about their lives, and they are proud to be African. Pan Africanism with a strong local flavour dominates the way people see themselves, other countries and the world.There is evidence of a strong feeling of ‘Africanness’ and a pride of being an African. There is patriotism towards one’s country and the continent.”
And so it turns out that, after all, the Zambians, the Pickfords and Howard French represent the authentic voice of Africa, the voice of the millions of Africans who have refused to be “blinded to their own virtue”, influenced by a “singularly successful indoctrination released on our continent”.
Peter Pickford says he has “wander(ed) through Africa finding value and wonder in what many, in the past and still today, view as a hopeless continent with, at best, some engaging landscapes with a few quaint features. And I have been astounded by their blindness.
“I love my land for all that it is to me and for all that I see in it. There is always in Africa something to pierce the sense-numbing attributes of a comfortable life and there is much to be said for feeling alive.
“Africa has thrown off the staid and proper ways the erstwhile colonialists would have had it display. It wears a bright shirt, shoots from the hip and bursts into song and dance, not because it is right or proper, but because it is what is in the heart.”

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