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Obituary – A razor-sharp mind

By Percy Makombe

DR Eddison Zvobgo, who died on Sunday at the age of 68, was one of the most respected members of parliament across the political divide. His skills in verbal warfare were legendary and were

put to effective use in his role as the spokesperson for the Patriotic Front at the Lancaster House Conference in 1979.

Ten days before the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement, he raised temperatures on a cold day in England by telling Margaret Thatcher to “jump into the Thames”. As if this was not enough, Zvobgo went on to insinuate that Thatcher was having an affair with “Satan Botha”. PW Botha was South African prime minister.

When Zvobgo felt that Lord Carrington, who was chairing the Lancaster peace talks, was trying to extract too many concessions from the Patriotic Front without corresponding pressure being applied on Ian Smith and Abel Muzorewa, he lashed out: “If Carrington carries on the way he has begun, plotting with puppets, we will go back to war.”

Lord Soames was appointed governor to put the Lancaster House Agreement into effect. It is said that ceasefire arrangements were announced by Carrington on the day of the governor’s departure for Rhodesia. The arrangements are said to have irked the members of the Patriotic Front as they felt that their concerns had not been fully covered.

Zvobgo went into action calling as many journalists as he was able to find at Lancaster House for a hastily arranged press conference. He thundered: “Carrington can go to hell . . . The answer Lord Carrington is No…No…No…”

For full effect, Zvobgo is said to have opened his eyes wide and looked into the cameras as he uttered the three Nos.

Together with President Robert Mugabe, he formed a formidable and eloquent team, especially when it came to handling the press. When Mugabe arrived back in Zimbabwe after a five-year absence, it was Zvobgo who was at hand to handle the proceedings in a crowded press room at the airport. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my great pleasure to present – not present, introduce to you again – the next prime minister of the free Zimbabwe, Robert Gabriel Mugabe.”

When reports began filtering through of Zanu PF’s lead in Zimbabwe’s first elections in 1980, Zvobgo announced at the press centre at Meikles Hotel: “It is no longer a question of whether we will win, but only by what margin.”

A founding member of Zanu in 1963, Zvobgo served as minister for 20 years in various posts before being dropped in 2000. The ever-articulate Zvobgo strongly believed in the observance of the law and the various freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.

Before a packed parliament in January 2002, he launched a scathing attack on the Jonathan Moyo-inspired Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, declaring 20 of its clauses unconstitutional. He described the Bill as the “most calculated and determined assault on our liberties, which are guaranteed by the constitution”. He said the proposed law was “. . . ill-conceived and dangerous” and wondered why Moyo’s ministry wanted “to grant themselves frightening powers”.

“Ask yourself whether it is rational for a government in a democratic and free society to require registration, licences and ministerial certificates in order for people to speak. It is a sobering thought,” he said.

The maverick MP made known his intention to contest Zanu PF’s leadership positions saying he would challenge anyone save for President Mugabe. He would not challenge Mugabe because of what he called his principled respect for him.

His health had been gradually deteriorating over the past five years as he was in and out of hospitals. Zvobgo was due to face a Zanu PF disciplinary committee to answer accusations of campaigning for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and refusing to campaign for Mugabe in the 2002 presidential election.

He answered his detractors in the typically sharp and eloquent way that only he could master. “These ‘mafikizolos’ have nothing to lose if Zanu PF is harmed . . . They shout Mugabe’s name loudest . . . Most of them are opportunists, corrupt and incompetent. They know that people do not want them but they believe they are secure in their blind fanaticism . . .”

He referred to the allegations as “ill-founded rumours peddled by ciphers struggling hard to become digits. How can these charges be taken seriously when they are obviously crudities and totally out of my style and range?”

Born on October 2 1935, Eddison Zvobgo received legal training in South Africa, London, Harvard and Tufts (Boston) universities. He was arrested in 1964 for political activism and remained in prison for seven years. His ministerial posts after Independence included Minister of Mines, Minister of State, Minister of Justice and Minister of Local Government and Housing.

Zvobgo’s death comes six months after the death of his wife Julia who was herself declared a national heroine for her role in Zimbabwe’s independence war.

He remains one of the few politicians who were able to rise above party issues to sustain a serious national agenda. He kept journalists on their toes because of his flair for producing the good quote. Friends and foes alike remark that being at the receiving end of Zvobgo’s razor sharp wit was not something to relish.

Despite being blamed for the executive presidency introduced in 1987, he became a strong advocate of constitutional reform remarking that voters had the right to know on the day a head of state took office when he would be leaving it.

* Percy Makombe is media and research officer with Seatini.

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