By Bill Saidi
IN the 1970s, on a flight back to Africa from the Far East, we stopped in Bahrain. In the airport building, I went into the restaurant for a drink.
>Before I left, I looked around for the pair of dark glasses I had taken off as I quaffed the drink. I couldn’t find them.
I didn’t ask the stony-faced hired help in the restaurant, but I knew one of them had taken them. In such a rich country there were petty thieves as well?
I felt sorely deprived.
In Cairo one year, I was among African editors honoured with an audience with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. His vice-president, present at the meeting, was Hosni Mubarak.
Last week, I heard Mubarak had never had a vice-president since Sadat’s 1981 assassination because he couldn’t find anyone suitable for the post.
A citizen had apparently sued him for not appointing a No 2. So, the people of Egypt have been deprived of a vice-president for 23 years because, in a country of more than 71 million people, Mubarak can’t find one qualified to be his deputy.
In a country with 12 or so million people, Zimbabwe, until last year, had two vice-presidents.
How have the people of Egypt reacted to this deprivation? Through the Muslim Brotherhood? They have staged a number of bloody assassinations, including an attempt on Mubarak’s life.
Different people react differently to deprivation. Roy Bennett, the Chimanimani MP, pummelled Patrick Chinamasa and Didymus Mutasa in parliament, feeling deeply deprived of both his dignity and his farm.
When last heard from, he remained staunchly unrepentant.
In the 1950s, a treasured bicycle was stolen from me. Well, from my uncle. We were visiting a relative in New Lines, a section of what is now disgracefully called Mbare. I say this because ever since they changed the name in the 1980s the place has become a dump. I suspect the name-change was a curse. The ancestral spirits of the man after whom it was originally named – Harare – are exacting their revenge.
The relative we were visiting was an uncle too: the son of my grandmother’s elder brother.
The uncle who had borrowed the bicycle was my mother’s half-brother. It was probably for this reason that I grudgingly allowed him to use my bicycle, to go to The Musika. It was then sparkling clean – perhaps not as clean as Covent Garden looked in the My fair Lady film.
But it was a fairly well-arranged marketplace, and not the higgledy-piggledy place that it is today.
But the thieves who lurk in every corner of the market today were there even then – albeit in smaller numbers, with even smaller hopes of rich pickings. But they were there among the innocent shoppers, the curious visitors from the “reserves” who believed coming to Harare township without touring The Musika was an unforgivable act of lunacy.
The bicycle was a Gazelle Sports. Raleigh, Rudge, Humber, Phillips were the names of the other famous bicycles on the market. The Gazelle was the latest and it was the only one aptly named – the gazelle is a small, soft-eyed but swift antelope.
When my uncle returned from The Musika on foot, I almost cried. He told us what had happened: while he undertook his errand, the thief helped himself to my precious flying machine.
I am not totally clear today if I passed a secret resolution on how to deal in future with people who deprive me of such treasures, but I suspect it featured homicide.
Since then I have had other deprivations: a Peugoet 404 sedan outside a hotel in Harare, a colour TV, a VCR, a car radio, much-loved videos, including one of the glorious 1999 Manchester United victory over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, and music cassettes, including Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenburg.
By then, I had probably mellowed and reacted with equanimity to these deprivations. But what I know, deep down in my soul, is that if the perpetrators were lined up and I was asked what to do with them, I would confess my homicidal intentions, before begging for them to be taken away.
Reaction to deprivation of a political nature can vary. People denied the right to vote freely and fairly could abandon the use of the entire so-called democratic paraphernalia and settle for violence.
Or they could withdraw into their little shells of apathy and leave politics to those whose aversion to dissent often drives them to homicide. This has happened in many African countries. It now threatens Namibia, where President Sam Nujoma has stoked the fires of, if not a political conflagration, then certainly of a political bushfire bound to spread as the elections for his successor draw near.
Nujoma was furious that Hidipo Hamutenya, as wily and astute a politician as Nujoma himself, seemed popular enough – without Nujoma’s backing – to win the Swapo presidency on the first ballot at the party’s congress last month.
To spike his guns, Nujoma fired Hamutenya as foreign minister. Some say he cited corruption; others are not so sure why. Hamutenya lost to Nujoma’s favoured successor, Lands Minister Hifikepunye Pohamba.
There is little chance that Hamutenya could win the republican presidency against Nujoma’s blue-eyed boy.
The Ovambo ethnic majority of Namibia, Swapo’s support base, would not offend Nujoma in that way.
Incidentally, there was no chance that anyone – including Gwanda Chakuamba – could win against outgoing Malawi president Bakili Muluzi’s anointed successor, Bingu Wamutarika, who changed his name because he feared the terror of dictator Kamuzu Banda’s goons while in exile.
In both cases, the people deprived of a choice were the voters.
They could react with typical lamb-like African docility: leave politics to the politicians and go about their business of survival in the best way they know how: steal, beg or borrow.
Zimbabwe is next in line. Mugabe’s announcement that he has yet to choose a successor as Zanu PF president portends another deprivation. How will Zanu PF react?
I advise them not to respond with the customary African whimper.
Bill Saidi is the editor of the Daily News on Sunday.