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Chasing the elusive Zimbabwean dream

Arthur Guseni Oliver Mutambara, a world-renowned robotics professor and one of the most intriguing figures in Zimbabwean public life, has rarely written about the private dimensions of his life — until now.

Brezhnev Malaba

Arthur Mutambara
Arthur Mutambara

In this new 249-page memoir entitled In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream: An Autobiography of Thought Leadership, the first of a three-book series that explores his leadership thoughts and philosophical disposition over a period of 35 years, he delivers a fascinating, provocative and rigorously engrossing tour de force. Volume one is sub-titled The Formative Years and the Big Wide World (1983-2002).

But what exactly is “the Zimbabwean dream”? Before we even venture there, we must also ask: what does it mean to be Zimbabwean?

This is a nation which held immense promise at independence in 1980. The Zimbabwe dollar was stronger than the United States dollar. The country boasted sub-Saharan Africa’s most industrialised economy after South Africa.

Today, 37 years later, there is no national currency. The United Nations says the rate of formal unemployment has reached a staggering 95% and 72% of the population lives in “extreme poverty”. What “dream” can the world possibly expect from a country led by a 93-year-old president who is eyeing re-election next year? Surely, dreaming is for tomorrow’s people, not yesterday’s men.

To locate the Zimbabwean dream, we must trace its roots. Mutambara, who turned 50 on May 25 this year, proffers a compelling argument. In his eyes, the Zimbabwean dream can only be realised firstly through a shared national vision and secondly through the creation of what he terms “brand Zimbabwe”.

“For example, we could aspire to make Zimbabwe a globally competitive economy, a prosperous nation with a high quality of life for our people by 2040. Ostensibly, we can then conceive three supporting pillars for this vision.
The first pillar should be about the economy, while the second focuses on society, and the third pillar deals with our politics,” writes Mutambara.

He is at his eloquent best when he elucidates the meaning of “a shared Zimbabwean dream”. He does not prescribe a formulaic dream but proposes the collective thought process that could lead to the expression of “a quintessentially Zimbabwean Dream”. Here his narrative—flowing crisply in present continuous tense—teases and tantalises. Can Zimbabweans dare to dream, in spite of all their well-documented woes? Unfortunately, in this part of the autobiography there is not much meat for readers to really sink their teeth into. But wait a minute, could this be the rocket scientist’s way of rousing our curiosity ahead of the publication of the next two books in the trilogy?

As I read this book, the meaning of “thought leadership” permeated my musings. When Joel Kuntzman, editor-in-chief of Booz, Allen & Hamilton magazine, coined the term in 1994, he emphasised the importance of having ideas “that merit attention”. Mutambara defines thought leadership as “intellectual influence through innovative and pioneering thinking”.

As a journalist, I have found the concept of “thought leadership” captivating. A related term is “public intellectual”. The legendary rabble-rouser Christopher Hitchens, who shares Oxonian leanings with Mutambara, once famously remarked that the duty of the intellectual is essentially twofold: first, to argue for complexity and to insist that phenomena in the world of ideas should not be sloganised or reduced to easily repeated formulae and, second, the intellectual must show that some things are simple and ought not to be obfuscated.

In an intellectually robust and bare-knuckled manner that has come to typify his persona, Mutambara lays bare the unbending convictions which have shaped his life, tracing the thread of values that has defined the journey from high school top-achiever, leading scientist, business consultant and his eventful plunge into the cauldron of Zimbabwe’s notoriously unforgiving national politics.

There are startlingly vivid accounts of Mutambara’s stand against President Robert Mugabe’s fevered machinations to impose a one-party state in the late 1980s. As a groundswell of public discontent threatened to cut short Mugabe’s controversial rule amid economic meltdown in the late 1980s, students at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), led by Mutambara among other organisers, displayed amazing bravery and struck a chord with the toiling masses.

Like most Zimbabweans of his generation, Mutambara was an ardent supporter of the national liberation project.
Those days, he even described Mugabe as “our upright and incorruptible revolutionary”. But when the revolution went off the rails as corrupt and autocratic leaders subverted the people’s struggle, he committed himself to mobilising against them. They had to be stopped “by tooth, nail and claw”, he would vow.

One of the most vexing puzzles in Zimbabwe in the aftermath of the power-sharing Government of National Unity which ran from 2009 to 2013, has been: Where is Arthur Mutambara these days? The new autobiography will answer the question.

After the 2013 general election, he withdrew from political life. The former Deputy Prime Minister is currently president of the African News Agency, a technology-driven multimedia news platform.

Among the formative experiences in Mutambara’s life was the anti-corruption demonstration of September 1988 by UZ students. He was secretary-general and authored a statement denouncing President Mugabe’s government. Shadrack Gutto, a Kenyan professor of constitutional law accused of inciting the students, was summarily deported from Zimbabwe.

In October 1988, Mugabe denounced the protesting students, dismissing them as foolish renegades. The government, angered by the dissent, abruptly terminated the state-funded grants and loans of 14 of the 15 students’ union leaders. But they could not touch Mutambara—his university education was being financed by an Anglo American Corporation scholarship. Government officials tried to have his scholarship withdrawn, but the company refused.

Despite expending his energies on what he describes as “revolutionary confrontation”, he did not neglect his studies and continued winning the university’s coveted book prizes.

There was no viable political opposition in Zimbabwe in the immediate aftermath of the 1987 Unity Accord which saw veteran nationalist Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo’s party Zapu captured and subsumed by Mugabe’s Zanu.

With no opposition in what was now a de facto one-party state, the daring actions of students went a long way in galvanising the citizenry. The government hit back viciously, deploying police and soldiers on campus. Badly injured, Mutambara was held in detention without trial for six weeks.

Mutambara attained a Bachelor of Science (honours) in Electrical and Electronic Engineering degree at the UZ. He applied for a Rhodes Scholarship and a Fulbright Scholarship. Incredibly, he was offered both. He opted for the Rhodes Scholarship which took him to Oxford University in Britain where he was awarded a Master of Science in Computer Engineering and subsequently a PhD in Robotics and Mechatronics. It was during his days at Merton College that Mutambara joined the Oxford Union debate chamber and rubbed shoulders with celebrated intellectual dissidents.

The graduate programmes and examinations at Oxford are exacting and demanding, even for the most intelligent of students. Mutambara describes, with understated sarcasm, the university’s weird academic rituals. Every student must write exams while dressed formal — in white shirt, dark suit and a white bow tie — and put on the gown and mortar board of their previous degree.

He completed the masters degree in one year and the doctorate in just over two years. Donning formal attire and an academic gown, he orally defended his thesis, in a record 45 minutes, stunning his supervisors. A typical viva voce at Oxford can take three hours. It takes some candidates six years to attain a PhD and others have either dropped out or committed suicide in utter frustration.

In his usual brash manner, Mutambara basks in the glory of his achievements at Oxford. Aged 28, he has a BSc, MSc and PhD under his belt. He gloats: “This African has just cracked the doctorate in two years and two months, and passed without any changes! The traditional Oxford establishment, while pleased with my achievements, looks a bit perturbed. I guess the African has outperformed the master, in his own territory. What an example of effective counter penetration!”

The man is oozing with confidence. At first glance, there are segments of his autobiography which suggest vainglorious boasting.

It only takes a nuanced understanding of his personality in its totality from the formative days of Hartzell High School to the “City of Dreaming Spires”, as Oxford is known, to fully comprehend where he is coming from and where he is going. Besides, although Mutambara has his flaws like every human being, he has plenty to be proud of — a sharp intellect, a fluency in debate that captivates audiences, an easy wit, a fiercely independent worldview, and the willingness to denunciate dogma.

Oxford is not the end of his journey. In 1995 he sets out for the United States, “the belly of the beast” as he calls it. He works as a research scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, professor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and management consultant at McKinsey & Company.

In 2002, Mutambara returned to Africa, convinced that he was now equipped with the necessary strategies and paradigms to make a difference on the continent.

No doubt, the new book will spark debate and fuel speculation in Zimbabwe. Is Mutambara preparing to run for president? Time will tell. Two more volumes will complete this autobiography. Volume 2 is sub-titled The Path to Power (2003-2008) and Volume 3 is The Deputy Prime Minister and Beyond (2009-2017).

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