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Daniel Munkombwe’s political life: what do we learn from it?

After being at the centre of national politics for over half a century, Daniel Chibbwalu Munkombwe joined, in 2015, the very short list of Zambian political leaders who have written their memoirs. Published by Fleetfoot (a local publishing company that provides an important platform for works that are unlikely to win the approval of commercial publishers), The Politics of Influence: an Autobiography of Daniel Munkombwe is an enlightening, engaging and pacy read, which convincingly meets its stated aim: ‘to share with others the story of my long and colourful political career, which has given me a vast insight of the politics of our country and its leaders at various levels’. In a narrative interspersed with superb storytelling, humour and style, Munkombwe accomplishes his goal in less than 150 pages, charting the course of his life, from an adversity-filled childhood to his education in colonial Zimbabwe, to his involvement in the nationalist struggle, and to his role in each of the post-colonial governments.

Having been an active political leader in the decolonisation movement, in the first eight years of post-colonial independence, which witnessed a competitive multiparty and democratic political system, in the one-party state in which the United National Independence Party (UNIP) was the sole legal political formation, in the two decades of Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) rule, and, most recently, in the Patriotic Front government, Munkombwe’s experiences illustrate the history of Zambia because he has been able to see changes spanning across these different historical periods. If history is the study of events and the role of individuals in those events, then Munkombwe possesses the credentials to write it, for he is a bastion of evidence and experience.

Born in Choma’s Mbole village on 16 May 1932, Munkombwe, known for his “politics of benefits” ideology, retains the distinction of having served all the Presidents that Zambia has had since independence (bar incumbent Edgar Lungu) as well as six different political parties – the African National Congress (ANC), the People’s Democratic Congress (PEDCO), UNIP, the MMD, the United Party for National Development (UPND) and the PF.

His commendable decision to capture this lengthy involvement in public life in a sharply written personal narrative is a feat that should be emulated by his political peers and juniors. The Politics of Influence, available in Bookworld and other local stores, sheds new light on several subjects of national significance and has much to tell us about Munkombwe himself.

First, Munkombwe’s memoirs teach us that there are many more heroes and heroines who contributed to the liberation of Zambia than is presently acknowledged. Munkombwe himself is a classic example. Since independence, there has been a sustained and arguably deliberate attempt by UNIP figures to project an inaccurate impression that the struggle for national independence was initiated and secured by UNIP alone. This is despite the fact that UNIP only came into existence after 1959, just five years before independence and over a decade after the campaign for self-determination was launched, in July 1948, by the Northern Rhodesia African Congress (renamed the ANC in 1952). Munkombwe’s memoirs contribute to the deconstruction of this dominant narrative and bring to light many unheralded people from the ANC and trade union movement who poured their resources and even their lives into the nationalist struggle. These include Mungoni Liso, Paul Mambo, Job Michelo, Robinson Puta, Godwin Mbikusita Lewanika, Omelo Mumba and Dixon Konkola, who was actually the first president of UNIP. Munkombwe highlights the fact that it was the ANC that laid the foundation of the liberation of Zambia, and that UNIP only completed the work started (and nearly secured) by Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula’s nationalist organisation. For the ‘born-free’ generation, the memoirs will broaden their knowledge and understanding of the patriots who fought for independence and the enormous sacrifices that went with their efforts. For the current and future national leadership, the memoirs are a challenge to broaden the definition of independence heroes and heroines to award recognition to those to whom it is due.

Second, Munkombwe’s autobiography explains his long-cherished and candid, if not controversial, philosophy of “politics of benefits”, which would have been a more fitting title for the book. In April 2013, Munkombwe publicly stated that “there is no more patriotism. Patriotism was only there when we were fighting colonialists, so everybody is adopting my philosophy of politics of benefits. I know people will say Munkombwe has gone into government because he wants to eat but who does not want to eat?” We learn through his memoirs that the “politics of benefits” idea has its origins in the frustrated expectations of independence and the non-inclusive nature of the newly-independent government insofar as the composition and distribution of public positions and responsibilities was concerned.

After the winning of independence, President Kenneth Kaunda moved to establish a government devoid of some of the ANC leaders who had played a not insignificant role in the leadership and financing of the nationalist struggle. In April 1965, ANC leader Nkumbula publicly challenged his unhappy party lieutenants to join the Kaunda government and secure the benefits of their toil. After a series of intra-party discussions, a list of ANC loyalists was drawn and prepared for submission to Kaunda and for deployment into the government, so that they, like their UNIP counterparts, could ‘eat’ too. Munkombwe was one of those appointed. Clearly, he is not afraid to speak his mind and present his views, and leaves the question of whether or not this resolution was right to the reader’s judgement.

Third, Munkombwe’s book contributes to national discourse and the documentation of history. Memoirs or autobiographical writings provide a particularised and alternative discourse free from the rigid rules of peer-reviewed academic publications; a unique way of explaining things and interpreting historical events using one’s understanding; and a much more localised, native or indigenous analysis and construction of national history that includes subjects or aspects that academic researchers, for instance, are unlikely to emphasise in their writings. A skeptic, educated elite or Euro-centric writer, for instance, is likely to pick up on Munkombwe’s lack of higher education and present him as an uninformed person rather than a militant and uncompromising patriot who never dishonoured the cause of freedom.

As we embark on the long journey to Zambia’s centenary celebrations in 2064, it is important that we cultivate a localised discourse that helps us to understand our evolution including what really happened in the preceding fifty years of the Zambian nationhood, to define and shape “the Zambian Dream”, and to set the stage for what we want Zambia to be in the next five decades. What we accomplished fifty years ago was simply the first step of a long walk to freedom from want. In order to realise our shared dreams and vision of attaining a better life for all, it is necessary to continue to ask such questions as: what are the fundamental objectives and goals that we are trying to achieve? What are the key elements of our strategy towards those objectives and goals? What are and what have been the most significant obstacles, and how shall we deal with them? What successes and failures do we draw from the past five decades? How do we secure and sustain the progress we have made? What are the big strategic needs and opportunities? Munkombwe’s memoirs should be viewed as a useful, if not partial, contribution to that discourse.

Space limitations prohibit a comprehensive review of the memoirs. Suffice to say that Munkombwe also devoted attention to discussing important national topics and his role in them such as the Choma Declaration, President Kaunda’s release of political prisoners such as Edward Shamwana just before he was defeated in the landmark 1991 elections, the formation of the UPND in 1998, and his stints in the governments of presidents Levy Mwanawasa and Rupiah Banda. He ends with a chapter titled ‘I Feel Betrayed’ in which he narrates his fallout with President Banda just before the 2011 elections. Banda not only questioned Munkombwe’s political input, but further removed the veteran politician from the presidential campaign team, a move that did not sit easily with ‘Old Daniel’.

All in all, Munkombwe’s book is a worthy and welcome publication that goes a long way in addressing the dearth of political writing in Zambia and the needs of students of Zambian political history. It represents an account of what he witnessed and experienced, his interpretation of the historical events in which he was involved, and should be read for what it is: a personal memoir. Autobiographies, especially those of politicians, are notorious for their authors’ appetite for self-congratulation and overdramatisation, their penchant for description rather than analysis, and their highly selective presentation of what they know. Munkombwe’s memoirs suffer from these and other flaws. For instance, what political value did successive presidents see in Munkombwe to keep appointing him to the same position of Southern Province minister or ruling party chairperson, in spite of his repeated failure to wrestle the region from opposition control? How did Munkombwe himself manage to make himself relevant amidst successive political alliances and governments?

In what ways is ‘loyalty’, if one can call it that, forged within a ‘politics of benefits’? What are the less visible social ties or networks that politicians like Munkombwe draw on, that are nonetheless important to their political careers? After fifty years in politics, what does he consider to be his legacy? Munkombwe does not answer these questions and it is tempting to dismiss his book as not very useful when wearing critical academic lens, and to insist that history is better written by people who possess the necessary qualifications and analytical tools and who are detached from their subjects. This is because writing about oneself and others who are still alive and involved in politics generally leads to self-censorship and feelings of conceit.

Yet dismissing Munkombwe’s effort on account of its weaknesses would be a disservice. It is also probably too much to expect someone who is still actively involved in politics, as Munkombwe was at the time the book came out, to write a perfectly honest and detailed account of themselves and their relationship with others. What is important is that Munkombwe has told his story, and thrown the challenge to other Zambians, including political leaders, to share theirs and help fill the gaps that might exist in his work. After all, we are all witnesses, and every witness has a story. Munkombwe has shared his. What is your story? What is my story? When are we going to share them?
This article originally appeared in the Bulletin & Record magazine and in The Post newspaper in 2015.

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