Simon Muzenda

Loyal and long-serving vice-president to Robert Mugabe
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The Independent Online

Simon Vengai Muzenda, politician: born Gutu, Rhodesia 28 October 1922; Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe 1980-88; Minister of Foreign Affairs 1980-81; Minister of Energy and Water Resources 1984-85; Vice-President 1988-2003; married (four sons, three daughters, and one daughter deceased); died Harare 20 September 2003.

Simon Muzenda was one of the "old guard" who helped bring Robert Mugabe to power in Zimbabwe in 1980 and who for almost a quarter of a century after that so loudly, so often and so slavishly acclaimed Mugabe's every word and deed.

Muzenda, Vice-President of Zimbabwe since 1988, was the least educated of all the men and women who have surrounded Mugabe since he became such a formidable force in the nationalist movement after the death of Herbert Chitepo in Lusaka in March 1975. Muzenda's death, at the age of 80, leaves a gap at the centre of Zimbabwe's now dangerously turbulent political life.

As this troubled southern African nation of 12 million people faces its worst political and economic crisis since independence from Britain (and white-ruled Rhodesia) in April 1980, Muzenda will be a hard act to follow. Who else, ask many of the 500,000 Zimbabweans living in exile in UK and Europe, could be so loyal to a man who has turned in record time the former jewel of Africa into yet another Third World basket case?

Certainly, Mugabe showed strain and rare emotion on his face when he appeared on state television on Saturday night to announce Muzenda's death. He intoned, "Simon Muzenda is and shall always remain a great revolutionary leader. He took it upon himself to join the struggle for the freedom of this country from British settler colonialism."

Muzenda had recently received treatment for a heart complaint and for the last few weeks had been kept alive on a support machine at the Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare. Only a fortnight ago, the state-controlled Herald newspaper dismissed as "rubbish" claims that Muzenda was dying and blamed British agents for spreading the rumour in an attempt to destabilise Zimbabwe.

Muzenda had been ill for several years but he loyally told journalists that he would never think of retiring before his "beloved" leader. This loyalty at times earned him the deep hatred of Zimbabweans facing starvation and economic collapse. Tens of thousands of people in the country's Western Province of Matabeleland detested the man for the praise he gave the Fifth Brigade of the National Army when Mugabe let it off the leash in 1982 to round up and "discipline" so-called "dissidents" who supported Mugabe's main political rival, the late Dr Joshua Nkomo. Between 20,000 and 30,000 people were killed.

In 1990, a political opponent, Patrick Kombayi, was shot between the legs by two police agents during a parliamentary campaign. Kombayi was standing against Muzenda on his home turf. The police agents were convicted of the attempted murder of Kombayi (who was permanently disabled) but soon after the trial they were both pardoned by Mugabe.

During campaigning for parliamentary elections in 2000, Muzenda ignobly told supporters of the ruling Zanu (PF) that Mugabe and his party were so popular that "if we put a baboon up as a candidate people will vote for it."

Simon Vengai Muzenda was born in the Gutu District of the Masvingo Province of Rhodesia in 1922. At the age of 23, he left Rhodesia to train as a carpenter in South Africa. Upon his return in 1953, Muzenda entered the political arena, joining the ultra-conservative and white establishment-approved British African National Voice Association as secretary-general.

Later, as the hunger for black power grew in Rhodesia, Muzenda started to associate with radical politicians and militant organisations which included the National Democratic Party (NDP) and eventually the umbrella movement of black nationalism, the Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu), led by Joshua Nkomo. Although the portly Nkomo was from Matabeleland (this region makes up roughly 20 per cent of the Zimbabwean population), the movers and shakers within Zapu were almost all from Mashonaland. They included James Chikerema and George Nyandoro as well as Mugabe and Chitepo.

When the seamless robe of nationalism was torn apart in 1963, Mugabe, Muzenda and the Rev Ndabaningi Sithole formed the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) and, according to many historians, the ensuing township violence between the two parties set the struggle for independence back at least 10 years.

After the Lusaka Declaration of Unity in May 1975 - imposed on warring Africans by Presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia -Muzenda left Salisbury for Lusaka where he became one of the best-known contact leaders at Freedom House in Cairo Road. After Chitepo's assassination, Zanu split along ethnic lines. Mugabe fled to Mozambique where he was joined by the ever-loyal Muzenda.

Zanu (PF) swept to power after the 1980 "one man/one vote" elections, winning 57 of the 80 parliamentary seats available to non-whites. Mugabe rewarded his colleague by appointing him not only deputy prime minister of Zimbabwe but also the country's first foreign minister. Between 1980 and the time of his death, Muzenda amassed a vast personal fortune and was known in Masvingo Province for his generosity to friends and relatives.

With Muzenda's death, the increasingly isolated Mugabe will soon have to name a replacement vice-president. Senior sources within the ruling party believe he will pick Emmerson Mnangagwa, Speaker of Parliament and one of the handful of Mugabe cronies who masterminded the ghastly Gukurahundi (the "storm that cleanses" anti- dissent campaign) in Matabeleland between 1982 and 1987.

Muzenda will be given a massive send-off at Heroes' Acre on the edge of the now run-down capital, Harare, later this week. Many mourners will express genuine sorrow at the end of a former carpenter who, in his younger days, displayed the common touch that won so many hearts, and votes, for Mugabe. But there will be others who turn up to the funeral because they feel it is politic to be there.

Trevor Grundy