Heroes do die young — why?

I missed meeting Tom Mboya by two years.

By the time I paid my first visit to Nairobi for a journalism workshop in 1971, he had been dead for two years — the victim of an assassination in 1969.

He was 39 years old.

Mboya was a cabinet minister in the first independence cabinet of Jomo Kenyatta.

He was Luo but had been expected to take over from the  Kenyatta, a Kikuyu as president.

Mboya was an intelligent and charismatic politician.

His death was blamed on a section of the majority Kikuyu.

As it turned out, it was not a Kikuyu who succeeded Kenyatta upon his death.

It was Daniel arap Moi, a member of the minority Kalenjin.

My misfortune continued into the 1990s.

By the time of my first visit to a democratic South Africa in 1999, Chris Hani had been dead for six years, assassinated in 1993. He was 51 years old.

He was secretary-general of the South African Communist Party and a key member of the ANC’s armed wing, the Umnkonto we Sizwe.

There was no doubt that he was destined for big things in the new government.

His assassination seemed to be a calculated act of vengeance by the people who had lost power, the Afrikaners.

I am a little confused about why these two incidents flowed back into my memory when I heard of the death of Solomon Tapfumaneyi Mujuru, the former commander of the Zimbabwe Army and a prominent leader of the guerilla forces which brought independence to Zimbabwe in 1980.

Mostly, it must have been the fact that I had known him personally since the 1960s.

But it could also have been the circumstances of his death — in an inferno at his farm in Beatrice, a farming area about 100  kilometres away from Harare.

He was 66 years old and had spent most of his adult life in the struggle.

His wife, Joice, the Vice President of the republic is herself a former guerilla under his command.

Mujuru died in the year that Mikhail Gorbachev celebrates 20 years since he started the quiet revolution that would end communism in the Soviet Union — and end that unwieldy union.

Mujuru, originally with the armed wing of Zapu, Zipra, led by the late Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo, was trained by the Soviets.

Like Hani, he too had been imbued with the revolutionary zeal which had inspired the 1917 October revolution against Czarist Russia.

Hani was mourned as copiously as Mujuru was.

Both men had distinguished themselves as true nationalists.

In Mujuru’s case, there was no theory of a “white conspiracy”, as there was in Hani’s case.

By the time of his death, Zimbabwe had been independent for 31 years.

He was 35 when his country became the independent republic of Zimbabwe.

Shortly after independence, he became probably the youngest commander of an army anywhere in the world.

He retired in what some called “unusual circumstances”.

Incidentally, Mujuru’s comrade-in-arms, Josiah Magama Tongogara, died in a road accident on the eve of his country’s independence.

For a long time, there was speculation that he had been assassinated.

The speculation did not dwell on who would have benefited from Tongogara’s death.

Curiously, both President Robert Mugabe and  Mujuru’s widow counseled colleagues in the party against speculating publicly on the circumstances of his death.

But this was of little help: the bizarre circumstances continued to excite much debate right up to the time her husband was buried at Heroes Acre last Saturday.

Mugabe, who is now 87 years old and in poor health, spoke effusively of Mujuru’s role in the struggle.

But even he would not gloss over the circumstances of his death.

Of particular interest among even the most apolitical citizens was how on earth a man of such consummate skills as a guerilla fighter could die in his own bed on his own farm without raising a peep for help.

He joins a list of other African nationalists who played a key role in the struggle for their countries’ independence, but fell by the wayside, at some point.

The phenomenon may not be peculiarly African, but is worth a thorough probing by the African Union.

  Saidi is a veteran journalist based in Zimbabwe

Comments are closed.