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Ode to a hero: Misheck Velaphi

Mathabelazitha/the anvil BY ZIFISO MASIYE

I was worried, both at his evident agonising pain and at the deep, far look in his teary eyes. It seemed to me as if the flashing moments that he stole from the punishing groans of excruciating body pain, were deep moments of reflective insight or revelation in which he was way outside that Forester hospital ward and outside his own pain, in some zone of non-mortals. Almost peaceful. But in all my terrified fear, I never imagined those were my dad’s closing remarks to me and the world he so loved.

Shifting his stony gaze off a fixated spot on that blank wall — a wall I was certain he must have been seeing beyond, Misheck Velaphi’s scrawny hand beckoned at me to draw closer to his floor-ridden body. With much effort, he held up both his hands and pulled me down to his face as a man does who has an important message to convey. His face changed, he contorted his mouth as if in anger, his steely eyes looked long and deep into mine, in a peculiar sort of way — the way all of us knew him when he either got upset or readied himself to deliver to an admonishment or words he meant for you never to forget. I waited for it. Yet I thought it an opportune moment to smuggle a teaspoon of mahewu into his emaciated body. But the shaking mouth was steel-sealed and he pushed away that spoon with determined violence, splattering the brew onto his chest. I attempted to wipe off the splash, but he held me so firm as if to say, “hey forget everything and simply listen to me”. So I obeyed the non-verbal instruction and simply looked back into his eyes and responded in invitation “Baba…?”

He tried to clear his evidently sore throat, to find a voice and to be as coherent and as fluent as his condition would allow him. As clear as mud, Misheck Velaphi said into my right ear, “Zii, those who know, will know… Those who do not know will never know!”

Instinctively, I pulled back my head, looked into his eyes, frowning in confusion. What would the man mean by such a parable? He noticed my baffled bewilderment and repeated in frustrated anger, as if to a stiff necked dimwit. “Ngithe, those who know, will know…Those who don’t know will probably never know!”

Without success, I ran the words through my head up 10 times throughout the night to piece together and fathom some meaning and relevance thereof and I wrote them down and I was determined to remind him and get some explanation when next I visited or when I was convinced his command of his faculties wasn’t in question.

Worried, but cautiously hopeful, geared for some quiet father and son tete-a-tete and answers to the puzzle, the next morning, April 29 I took to Misheck Velaphi, the porridge he never had. He had spoken his last and I was never to know those who know, that will know, nor those who don’t know, that will never know. Was I too, forever to wallow in the “never know” basket, I agonised!

Naturally, my own view will be biased, but those in the know do know that not many soldiers, not many patriots, not many pioneers and not many bona fide revolutionaries and veteran nationalists deserve to be lying at the national Heroes Acre any more than Misheck Ntundu Velaphi. Those who know, will know too, that, in his unique self-denial and natural element, Velaphi himself would care very little for the status he was bestowed.

My father’s words: those who don’t know will never know did come alive when, some two weeks after he breathed his last, his body languished in a morgue, as his cherished party, the party he served with my staunchest disapproval, but unflinching loyalty, unparalleled sacrifice and unwavering commitment, clearly agonised to arrive at the decision to honour him. In stark contrast, it took a couple of hours and a unanimous chorus to declared, glorified maskandi, Oliver Mtukudzi, such a status!

Misheck Velaphi’s last words that “those who know will know and those who don’t know will never know”, rang true to me when, after President Emmerson Mnangagwa (who must be one of the very few who knew) must have exercised his prerogative and declared the man a national hero — some media houses had the temerity to lead with such headlines as, Little known Velaphi bestowed Hero status.

They know gigs and guitars, they know of sleaze, fortune and fame, they know of Walter Magaya and Wicknell Chivayo and all the glory-hugging politicians, but how could any of our little-researched newsrooms and our processed, fast-tracked politicians ever know of the life and times of Misheck Ntundu Velaphi?

Courage and self-denial

Who will have the tea without the milk. Growing up, we sat around the table about to have tea. Mom announced, as was our accustomed life condition that there was only milk for dad and all of us kids have to take our tea without. In his casual nonchalance, retorted “No, no, no if there is no milk, let the children share the little there is…It is I, the father who has failed to provide the milk, it is I who must have my tea without milk!.” In all his life, Misheck Velaphi’s principled refusal to accept all forms of injustice, discrimination and the exclusion, whether perpetrated against him or perpetrated to his advantage defied and distinguished this luminary. The story of his extreme personal sacrifice and indefatigable courage against white minority rule and apartheid from the early 60s, so articulately related by historian Phathisa Nyathi and corroborated by friends and foes who know, is a “Angilwelanga Lokho!”
(That’s not what I went to war for!)

The courageous warrior I knew to be a rich fountain of integrity, sound human values and principles of humility and ubuntu, virtually died a pauper and claimed none of what he clearly deserved. Where so many of his great colleagues earned what they deserved and looted what they didn’t, Misheck Velaphi was a frustrating strickler with the founding values of “Isotsha Eliphethe Umtwana”. He neither claimed, nor received, nor benefitted personally for his unparalleled sacrifices, and he was ever humble and content with circumstances that were less than dignified for his station in life. Always when we got mad at him, he would laugh us off “Angilwelanga lina, ngalwela abantu beZimbabwe!” (It is not me and you I waged a war for, it is the people of Zimbabwe!)

Forgive them son, “Baxolele”

So many times I challenged and quarrelled with Misheck Velaphi’s political choices and his company of thugs and unrepentant looters, showing him indisputable cases of national ruin at the hands of his colleagues and incidences of relentless corruption that he was so much against. Though he gracefully embraced and tolerated my strong opposition views, the revolutionary in Misheck Velaphi was never moved. He always drew a clear distinction between the looters of his struggle and the true cause of his struggle. Witnessing everyday, the scornful neglect, lonesome betrayal versus the unflinching commitment, we struggled with Velaphi’s breed of tolerance and forgiveness of his tormentors right up to his very last breath.

Zii Masiye ( writes elsewhere on social media as Balancing Rocks

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