Very few people can be described as heroes. It is a term that should be used to describe a person who overcomes enormous adversity for the common good: such a person was John Makumbe. To be born an albino in Zimbabwe 63 years ago, and to die being remembered for being one of the most tolerant, non-discriminatory, peace-loving, and open persons in the nation is to be a hero. Others will describe his contribution, but I wish to honour the remarkable man that John Makumbe was.
John once told me that that this gift of his for being tolerant and loving did not come easy. Until a caring pastor showed him that he was not a freak, he dealt with the mocking and ridicule through violence, and through the support of his loving family. The first he gave up, but he never lost the gift of loving: his caring and understanding of the trials faced by people carried him into a special place in the hearts of the nation. More than anyone alive today, John Makumbe showed the qualities of the true democrat because he knew that the way in which democracy should develop depended on tolerance and respect for others. He lived this more than any other person that I have ever met.
He was also the most courageous man that I have ever met. He turned adversity into strength, and strength into love. No one that I have ever met was less daunted about speaking truth to power. John, in the hearts of tens of thousands of Zimbabweans, is the person we will all remember as the person who said what no-one else would dare to say, who would speak the words we all wished to say, and it always would be the words that could carry us forward into a better place. When he spoke, the words resonated in all of us.
John also had another extraordinary gift. He could take very complex problems and then make them simple, and, even better than this, then make the very simply funny. Laughter was very close to the surface in John: he could so easily have been a sarcastic and cynical commentator, after all he was a deeply respected academic and academics have this training in the art of debate and criticism. John was no less a critic, but he delivered the criticism with wit and immense good humour. The stories that described this gift are legendary.
I remember John sitting in the Sheraton with a group of us waiting to see the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers, and the Zimbabwe Government delegation walking out of the meeting, led by John Nkomo. They greeted John – mainly because he had deliberately placed his chair close to their path and the watching cameras – and he responded by alternatively showing the closed fist and the open hand, and saying loudly, “which team are you”? Everyone laughed, even the Government delegation, but whom else in Zimbabwe in 2000 would have dared tease ZANU PF in that way.
He was an outrageous political tease: in the House of Lords, Brussels, Washington – in fact everywhere – John would push the high and mighty through his unique gift of allying humour to clear political analysis. In the House of Lords, I have a vivid memory of him teasing the Lords attending a briefing, suggesting that they visit Zimbabwe to see things for themselves, and, when one eminent Lord pointed out that they might be deported or arrested, John told them, straight-faced, that this was the point. Their faces were a sight to behold, but were relieved when John burst into his inimitable laughter.
But whilst he debunked and teased the high and mighty, he had a touch for the ordinary person, for these were the people he understood and fought for his whole life. From the formation of FODEZI through his chairmanship of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition to his final acceptance of joining a political party, John always kept close to his heart (and his expression) his deepest beliefs in democracy, citizen power, and, above all, his deepest belief in the family and the community as the bedrock for both of these.
But John’s greatest strengths were his zest for life and love, expressed with his inimitable humour. Even those who disagreed with him, and found his opinions often outrageous, would find themselves laughing in spite of themselves, and later seeing his point. This was why he was our greatest teacher, one of the very few who could get us to see the important things in life, the ways in which we could be better than we are, the ways in which we could overcome adversity, and then see the deeper message.
John Makumbe lived life to the fullest. He lived his beliefs to the fullest. He was the best example to our nation of how an ordinary person can become extraordinary. His legacy to Zimbabwe is immense, not because he enjoyed power, but because he showed us all by example that we can be personally powerful. He was clever, brave, honest, compassionate, and caring, and the only sadness is that he did not live to see the democracy for which he gave so much of his living. We must remember his legacy, but never forget the way in which he lived that legacy: principle and love were his greatest gifts.
*This article was written by Anthony P. Reeler, a close friend of Dr Makumbe’s*