John Nkomo – The book that never was

Zimbabwe’s Vice President, John Landa Nkomo, passed away on January 17, 2013 and was buried at the country’s National Heroes Acre in Harare on January 21, 2013, in recognition of his services to liberation struggles not only in Zimbabwe but across Southern Africa.

Several years ago when I was working at The Chronicle in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) together with photographer, Costa Manzini, we decided to visit a popular braai place, koMthwakazi, just outside the city.
It was a Sunday and stories can be very difficult to get and Sundays are known as “dry” days.
After a while we drove back to Bulawayo.
In front of us was a blue Mazda 323, which suddenly veered off the road and plunged into the bush.
We stopped and made a follow up and were met by a grim scene.
Two young men were trapped in the vehicle and although one of them was groaning in pain and calling for help, the other one was limp and appeared to be lifeless.
We made all efforts to ensure that they received all the help that they could get.
One of the boys had died on the spot and on the way to hospital, the other became delirious and suddenly started screaming: “I am John Nkomo’s son! Where is my friend? Where are you taking me? Is my friend dead?”
Cde Landa John Nkomo was then (Zimbabwe’s) Minister of Local Government and was always willing – like many politicians – to grant me interviews.
So I felt the best that I could do was to inform him about the developments. I looked his number in the telephone directory – there were no cellphones during that time – and rang him up at his home in Worringham (a Bulawayo suburb).
The person at the other end of the line guardedly told me he was not around. I asked where I could get him as I had important information to give him. The person reluctantly gave me a Binga number.
Cde Nkomo answered the telephone, I gave him the news then rang off.
By then I had managed to establish that his son was called Mpini and that the person who had died in the car accident was the son of Cde Alice Nkomo, a ZANU-PF stalwart.
I forgot the incident and it was weeks later that he called me for a meeting to thank Manzini and myself  for what we had done.
Over the years, the incident would always become a source of our discussions.
“Your friend is much better now, he has recovered and is in the US,” he would say every time we met.
As a result, a form of friendship and confidence began to develop as he continued to rise up the political ladder, including becoming ZANU-PF national chairman and later Vice President (of the party and the country). By then I had moved from The Chronicle to The Daily News and later The Standard.
After more than four years of not meeting, I began to notice that his condition was beginning to deteriorate and made up my mind to see him.
I had overlooked that he was no longer the Minister of Local Government and that as Vice President, there would be many layers of bureaucracy to cut through.
His secretary told me to write a letter stating why I wanted to see him and the nature of my business.
I told her to forget about it and that if she did not mind, could she tell him that Foster wanted to see him.
She telephoned a few minutes later and in a very cool voice, told me Vice President Landa John Nkomo would see me the following day at 10am.
After going through the usual security checks, I was ushered into his office at Munhumutapa (the seat of the Presidency) in the company of some officials brandishing notebooks and pens.
Goodness me! Even a private conversation was going to be recorded – but again this was the Vice President of Zimbabwe, I kept reminding myself.
As I walked into his office, he left his desk and we greeted like old friends. We discussed many things, starting with my belated congratulations on becoming VP to “your friend who is in the USA” family and trade unionism – which he spoke about passionately -including the liberation struggle.
We also discussed my plans at the time to pursue studies in the US or Europe. He mentioned something to the effect that: “Don’t let them pollute you! We may need to give you the right orientation before you go.”
We laughed it off, but I could not help feeling sad as he had become a pale shadow of the vibrant man that I used to know. He had lost some hair, and around his wrists and ankles I noticed some swelling.
As he continued talking about his role in the liberation struggle and trade unionism, I asked him why he was not putting that in a book.
After some time, he said he would prefer that I should write his biography! Within a short while, he had even appointed one of his officials as the person that I would have to deal with on the book project.
“What you can do is that you can interview me and record everything then you can give me the draft which I will go through. Don’t mention that the interview is for the book as I may subconsciously edit some of the things. So let’s have many hours of recordings so that you have unedited and undiluted material.
“You or your assistants, can interview me at home or even at the farm. I look forward to that then we can eat inhloko (cow head) like real African men.”
Somehow at the back of my mind, something told me this would be a race against time. I bade him farewell and left.
Later in the evening, I watched the local news bulletin and there was a clip on Acting President Nkomo receiving some diplomats.
Then it hit me in the face: I had spent a good part of the morning with the Acting President of Zimbabwe and he had just commissioned me to write his biography! Unfortunately we never got started on the book as his condition continued to deteriorate.
Rest in Peace Mdala. –

January 2013
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