It has been said quite often that death comes “like a thief in the night”. I thought about this perceptive saying when I heard the shocking news of the sudden death of Advocate Cyril Ndebele in the early hours of Friday October 7 2016 at Mater Dei Hospital in Bulawayo. However, in the specific circumstances under which I personally witnessed his last day before his condition deteriorated, this expression seemed to fall short of what sometimes happens.
obituary BY STRIKE MKANDLA
Death came like a thief in broad daylight. In the same hour he was chatting and going back and forth to answer telephone calls while waiting for his turn to consult the doctor and after consultation he was in the process of acquiring diagnostic data when his condition suddenly deteriorated. At that point it was unthinkable to a layman like me that he could die in less than 10 hours or so.
When he walked into the surgery at Galen House on Thursday evening, on October 6 Ndebele beamed his characteristic smile as I stood up and offered him a seat next to me. This is slightly above 42 years since I had started occasional chats and debates with him as a young man in London in 1974. My recollection is that this time this was the most informal I had seen him dressed. He also did not start off by engaging me in banter on politics and what I was doing. He assured me that he was feeling better than the previous night. He said, “I coughed quite a lot last night and I think I must have ruptured something in the process”. He then beckoned to his son to come close and introduced him saying about me, “This is one young man you should meet”. He then told me how the young man (his son Vusa) had come all the way from Harare upon learning of his indisposition. This was a unique day because for the first time in decades, this was one day we spoke about transitions between generations, when younger people take over responsibility from their parents and slowly act in their place and care for them. His exact words were, “Yiso isintu leso” (That is our true culture).
Normally, he would have started with a pointed observation or picked up from an earlier conversation. For example, I thought he would tease me about my recent election to the post of secretary general of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) at our party congress. He is one man who commented about my professional advancement and political choices, sometimes to the point of saying, “I think you are wasted there”. We would invariably good-naturedly spar about developments and personal choices and how this would help the country and the institutions we served. I do not know how many other younger people he debated with even when they were intellectually less developed than he was. I hope that this experience and this trait have been passed to many of those who dealt with Ndebele, the ability to focus on the issue at hand and not the status of the person articulating an idea. He was already a “learned man” in 1974 when I started on my first degree; but he was patient and fascinated by what must have seemed very left-wing views as he sought to inject into my impatience and understanding the motivations and world-view of Zimbabwean nationalist leaders. In the 1990s when I was a United Nations professional we had a discussion over dinner in which I complained about the calibre of some of the Zapu component in the government after the nefarious “Unity Accord” with Zanu PF. I remember him saying, “Aren’t you being arrogant, considering that we have people like Dr Kotsho Dube who is an ambassador?” The important thing here is that he did not brush aside opposing views without some kind of answer.
Ndebele was one of the generation of Zapu members who went by different routes to Europe, North America and other parts of the world in the 1960s and 1970s. When I got to meet him personally in 1974 he was in a rich company of friends, colleagues and compatriots. There were people like his close friend Johnson Ndlovu (usekaFumi), Jameson Mthethwa, Amos Dlamini and his brother Ben, Jacob Sigodo Moyo, Robbias Ngubo, Harold Ndlovu and Esther Ndlovu, Agrippa and Gina Madlela, Matshasi Sibanda, Willie Mgqibelo Ncube, Ivy Nkala, Leyton Sithole, Misheck Chinamasa, Kallai Njini, Amos Mazula, Paul Phahlane, Richard and Elizabeth Dube, and many others. Ndebele and his friends provided much-needed support to Zapu representatives Naison Khezwana and Arthur Chadzingwa who kept the party’s profile high until the attainment of independence in 1980. They also provided inestimable support to young men and women who flocked to Britain and other parts of Western Europe from 1974.
At the national level, Ndebele was in the Zapu team involved in the Lancaster House negotiations in 1979 that ushered Zimbabwe’s independence. As I was writing this piece, I opened a message from a long-standing friend and colleague Mtshana M Ncube who wrote in part, “Advocate Cyril Ndebele’s membership in Zapu contributed greatly to shaping a leadership of the liberation movement that respected the will of the people and that committed itself to equality and justice for all in a free Zimbabwe. After independence Cyril continued working tirelessly for good governance and for peace”.
Thus, apart from his prominent roles in Zapu, he also held key positions in government, most notably the position of Speaker of Parliament between 1995 and 2000. It was inevitable that anybody who wanted crooked decisions from Speaker Ndebele would find that he was unbending in defence of truth and due process. It is now part of the public record that he was pushed out of the post of Speaker for sticking to principle. Similarly, those who know him were not surprised that he was one of those who supported Zapu’s withdrawal from the so-called “Unity Accord” and the revival of the party as an independent entity in 2010. Here again he was never silent when he had a point of view, but expressed his opinion without making enemies of those he disagreed with on specific issues. His appointment by the government of President Robert Mugabe in February 2016 to head the Peace and Reconciliation Commission was a sound decision that recognised personal and professional qualities. He richly deserves the reported “state-assisted funeral” being given to him. Yesterday some young journalists asked me if I thought Ndebele should not be declared a national hero. My response was what I recalled from the late Dr Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo on this subject. It was something to the effect that heroes cannot be declared into existence and that all that can be done is to recognise heroism where it exists or has been shown.
Cyril Ndebele’s death is a blow not only to the family, but to many friends, colleagues and Zimbabweans he has served without much fanfare but with diligence and fearless dedication. Much less deserving characters have been given status of heroes, but we know our heroes.
May His Soul Rest in Peace
Dr Strike Mkandla is the Zapu secretary general