HomeOpinionOf flesh and blood: Struggle stalwart Simpson Victor Mtambanengwe

Of flesh and blood: Struggle stalwart Simpson Victor Mtambanengwe

At birth on December 9 1930, he was named Simbisanayi Victor, but at school they teased him, calling him “simbi” (a metal), “simbi inorira” (a metal that makes noise”) so he changed his name to Simpson. But that name Simbi never quite went away, did it? Most of his family, in particular his nieces and nephews, now in their 40s and 50s, got to know him in their teens after he got back from exile and unaware of this story, fondly referred to him as Sekuru Simbi or simply Sekuru. Others called him Uncle and many more Baba. The point is Judge Simpson Mtambanengwe, who died in Namibia on May 11 2017 while enjoying different relationships and various ranks to a myriad of people, represented one thing to all, a protector, the eldest patriarch within the Mtambanengwe Clan, a father figure to many, far and wide, a reference point, a reservoir of the finer details of the struggle for the liberation of Zimbabwe and a survivor of that struggle. It was understood without hero-worshipping him that, the titling of his name, judge, was professional. In fact, he insisted on the separation of his professional/public and familial/private personas.


Simpson Victor Mtambanengwe
Simpson Victor Mtambanengwe

With the cessation of hostilities arising from the Lancaster House Agreement, the returnees from the struggle of Zimbabwe knew the detail, orally and in their hearts and minds, of who had died, played what role and where in the liberation of our country. There was documentation too, open and closed. Therefore, the location of where struggle stalwarts lie buried today, whether in Zimbabwe or outside, is irrelevant to their role and the sacrifices they made during the war of liberation. Their role is etched in the annals of history and can never be erased or selectively memorialised. We must all be thankful that there is now Google and its army of fact checkers spread around the world, therefore our collective history no longer runs the risk of the single – minded narrative.

What remains vivid in my memory is that Sekuru Simbi lived his life as an untitled commoner among us. He never let his monolithic “titled” accomplishments have a bearing on interpersonal relationships within the family. A measured and awe-inspiring human being, at familial level, we never heard Sekuru “judge”, bulldoze nor minimise anyone during family gatherings. Sekuru was simply a brain box with a fresh point of view. But one of his most attractive trait was inclusivity. He recognised brilliance in others. During playtime where intellectual debate was the card game, Sekuru always wanted everyone to be heard. He reminded us that “listening to others gives us the power to speak”. Everyone with a point of view was allowed to share and ultimately, it was the superior view that triumphed regardless of who put it forward. A down-to-earth, towering man with a dizzying presence, Sekuru remained one of us throughout. And when he wanted to engineer change within a person or a situation, he simply influenced, cajoled and persuaded, through sharing of his own vision and experiences, and often it was subtly and smoothly executed during playtime. Because he loved reading, he also bought books for many as a way to persuade us to consider other progressive ways of thinking.

In the African Parade of March 1962, then journalist, Absolom Patrick Ndoro, wrote a piece on the death of Mwanyenya Maxin Mtambanengwe, the father of Sekuru Simbi. That obituary, entitled My Children, To See Beyond the Horizon sheds light on the Mtambanengwes as a family, while encapsulating the visionary achievements of Maxin and the game-changing and path-finding activities his third son Simpson, then in his early 30s, was already involved in. It is a piece that confirms the adage, “where there is vision, the people shall prosper”.

Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that Sekuru achieved, in a manner that seemed effortless. He accomplished, but only while serving others selflessly during the war and after as a legal mind. This was the foundation, the basic premise ingrained in him by his parents, during his formative years. Sekai Holland (nee Hove) confirmed that during the late ’50s to the ’60s, the Mtambanengwe family was one of “Southern Rhodesia’s most intelligent African families”. It was a “national family” so to speak with some of its members, Simpson’s siblings, e.g Lovemore and Aggrey charting new paths in education and business. Within the wider Mtambanengwe clan today, there are indeed many high-achieving young people, making great strides locally and internationally having been motivated by their forefathers.

Sekuru was born at Old Umtali Mission to Mwanyenya Maxin Mtambanengwe and Marita Madyirafinyi. He was a twin to his sister Abigail Gloria Vera. In a family of nine siblings, consisting of five boys and four girls, the twins were the fifth. At school-going age in 1936, Auntie Abigail started school alone and Sekuru Simbi stayed home for two years to herd the cattle because the older children were already at school and could not be disturbed and the ones younger were still too young. That is why at school, the two were two years apart. That did not deter him. In fact, besides giving him the resolve to achieve, becoming one of the first graduates at the University College of Rhodesia in 1959, it made him see gender relations in a different light – that women must equally be educated and in situations where choices had to be made between a female and a male child, the advantages must be skewed in favour of the female child. The twins both succeeded in chosen careers, Abigail rising to head one of the training hospitals, Mpilo, as a nursing matron and Simpson as a judge but via exile as a founding father of the struggle of Zimbabwe.

Among other things Sekuru taught us was honesty, integrity, self-sufficiency, selflessness and to be satisfied with enough. At some point during his Namibian stint on secondment as a judge by the government of Zimbabwe, he refused to accept the chief justice position, arguing that a Namibian needed to assume the position. He never amassed wealth and never lived beyond his means. He did not die as poor as a church mouse, neither did he die dripping of gold, platinum and diamonds. He strived to have enough. He simply spent from what he earned, shunning extravagance, conspicuous consumption and the I-want-it-now mentality. He never benefitted from any affirmative action programme and justified this by reminding us that he had enough and all he needed in life was enough. That is what he had fought for and that is what he expected of himself.

Consistency, professionalism and commitment to the work contract were Sekuru’s middle names. Sometime ago when I was younger and naive, a woman I knew persuaded me to pay Sekuru a visit. This woman was divorcing and out of desperation, she was leaving no stones unturned because she did not want her enstranged husband to benefit from the house she had bought before their marriage. A cousin of hers was a clerk at Court and had advised her that her divorce case was going to be adjudicated on by Sekuru. Naively, I agreed to pay Sekuru a visit at the Judges Chambers on Samora Machel and after telling him about the case, he winked at me mischieviously, chuckled and said, “You are crazy”! The following day, he got to court and recused himself. It was a story we always laughed about over a 21-year-old single malt of his favourite drink. That was not the only incident. Another close family member tried to do the same thing. He got to court and recused himself.

Making time for playtime was a way of making himself accessible to everyone in the family, young and old, male and female. Even under impossible circumstances, he made time to play. I remember, more than two decades ago, I flew into Windhoek for a day visit. I called him on arrival and he advised that he was going to be in court the whole day so we would not be able to meet for lunch as I had suggested. He then enquired when my flight was departing. In the evening, after I had checked in, I felt sad that I had missed an opportunity to break bread with him. Seventy minutes before we boarded the flight, Sekuru found me in the departure lounge and we had an opportunity to snack and share a drink. He was special like this to most people in the family for he had the capacity to make each and every one of us believe that we were the best thing that ever happened to his life.

We always suspected that Sekuru was a closet feminist. He never fathered a daughter of his own but he was particularly sensitive about how women in the family were treated. Every African family has got its fair share of patriarchal misogynists. Sekuru was a protector and gate keeper of the women in the family, shielding us from these patriarchal menaces. But in his defence for the rights of women in the family, he never alienated those whose views were cast in stone. An aunt speaks of the time she was beaten to a pulp by her husband.

Sekuru was told. He rushed there and advised everyone that it was not the right time to talk as emotional tensions were high. He picked up his niece and took her home after advising those present that further discussions would take place in his quarters the following day.

One of his daughter-in-laws tells a story of how Sekuru gave her an open cheque to “quickly go and buy jeans from Edgars” because the skirt she was wearing was totally out of synch with the function they were attending as a family. She had never owned a pair of jeans nor trousers. The first pair was bought by her father-in-law – Sekuru – who advised her that she was now his child not an in-law.

Many people with larger-than-life achievements retreat into their cocoons and become inaccessible. Sekuru was different. He was generous with his time, he was generous with his wisdom and knowledge, he was generous with his connections – in essence, he viewed life from a position of abundance, not scarcity, and therefore what he knew, he shared. Every time each and everyone of us, particularly nieces and nephews met Sekuru, there was always new information to be shared. I believe that in sharing, he wanted us to “see beyond the horizon” just like he was made to see, by those who came before him.

Sekuru was a father, a mother, an uncle, a friend, a mentor and a coach to everyone. Those from among our family who have not soared, it is because they did not have a teachable spirit.

Sekuru was married to Auntie Julianna (nee Gobvu) and they had six sons, Mwanyenya, Victor, Takura, the twins Taedza and Tendai, and Takunda. He is survived by Auntie Julianna, four sons, Victor, the twins Taedza and Tendai, Takunda, 10 grandchildren, his twin sister Abigail Vera, an older sister Eunice Mparutsa and a younger sister Margaret Ndoro.

In death, just like in life, he remained stubbornly a Mtambanengwe, defiant, insisting on having his own way, in the process generating a triumphantly sweet situation where his ultimate wish to be buried at the feet of his father Maxin was granted.

Sekuru Simbi, may your beloved soul rest in eternal peace.

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