‘We are not on auto-pilot’

Dr Misheck Sibanda

I first got to know about His Excellency, the President, through narration from my father, Gedi Mugwadi, when I was young, attending Mapazuli (Mapanzure) Primary School in Zvishavane.

I was — if you like — a bookworm, studying quite a lot.

My father then likened me to a “Bachelor Teacher” called Teacher Ngwenya who once stayed with them in 1944 when he was the only teacher at that school.

They decided to give him secure accommodation. That’s how they had direct contact as he had to be accommodated by my father’s brother.

I wasn’t born then, only coming almost six years later.

“You are like Mugabe,” my father said in his passing comment. “I am happy that you like your books. You will end up a good teacher like him.”

Most of the time, Mugabe would go to the mountains to read books. He exhibited a high level of integrity and morality, and was extremely intelligent. He was not messing up with people’s kids.

Then I got interested in knowing the man.

When I became politically conscious, especially when I began Form One in 1964, I got to know of the Secretary-General of Zanu: Robert Mugabe.

I asked my father whether that was the same person he had referred to. He said yes. Progressively, we followed nationalist politics when I went to Fletcher (High School) for my A Level and, subsequently, to the local university.

We participated through inspiration, inspired by leaders like Robert Mugabe.

My first face-to-face encounter with him happened when I was in the United Kingdom studying like most of our early leaders here; the likes of Witness Mangwende, David Karimanzira, Didymus Mutasa, Simba Makoni, Frederick Shava.

I was at the University of Birmingham with Mutasa, Felix Muchemwa (he was my senior) and many others.

We were heavily involved in Zanu politics. In fact, I was the Birmingham branch and United Kingdom district publicity secretary.

In 1975, we had contact from Mozambique that Robert Mugabe intended to visit on behalf of youngsters who had made a declaration at Mgagao, Tanzania that they wanted to continue the armed struggle in the midst of what was then called détente.

This détente was started by the Americans under Henry Kissinger to try and see whether there could be some rapprochement between the fighters and the internal system under Ian Smith.

And it led to the release of fighters like Mugabe who were in jail.

Regrettably, though, it also culminated in the tragic death of Zanu Chairman Herbert Chitepo who was based in Zambia.

The liberation movement was paralysed to some extent because of Chitepo’s death and manoeuvres by Ian Smith supported by the Americans with their détente to the extent that there were now a number of players.

There was what was called — under the umbrella ANC led by Bishop Abel Muzorewa — the Zimbabwe Liberation Council.

This was led by Muzorewa, Ndabaningi Sithole and James Chikerema. They were supposed to lead the armed struggle, but were really uninterested.

And it was at that time that a few youngsters in Mgagao made a big declaration; they wanted arms to continue the struggle.

Robert Mugabe was in Mozambique as the leaders in Zimbabwe had sent him, accompanied by Edgar Tekere, to fill the vacuum outside.

We were part of the leadership that facilitated his coming to the UK. As students who relied on stipends, the money was not enough.

I was on a Commonwealth Scholarship, but we were supported by Guy Clutton-Brock who was then based in the UK. He had worked with the likes of Didymus Mutasa at Cold Comfort.

So, in February 1976, I had a face-to-face with our now President in Didymus Mutasa’s house in Birmingham.

We even had the opportunity to ask Robert Mugabe then: “But why don’t you take the leadership?”

He said, “No, people have to elect me. If I am elected by the fighters and eventually endorsed by the people within Zimbabwe, then I will certainly take over.”

What struck me was what my father had told me.

I saw a very intelligent, eloquent person addressing us, a person who exhibited, even at that stage, respect for constitutionalism: “I need to be elected by the people. I will continue to lead as a spokesperson for the youngsters in Mgaogao and as Secretary General.”

Independent Zimbabwe

My second face-to-face encounter was after his home-coming. He was then President of Zanu following elections in Chimoio, Mozambique.

I was teaching at the university and was the political commissar of Harare district, which extended from Mazowe to Ruwa, Hatfield — the entirety of Harare and its rural environs.

At the university, we campaigned for a black vice-chancellor, clamouring for reforms.

Twenty-four black lecturers worked with us in the party at the time, including students, the likes of Mutero Chirenje, Nkosana Maraire, James Chitauro, Warambwa, Elias Rusike, and many others, including Kadanhi, Zimunya, Chigaro, Professor Pungweni.

They selected us to go and brief the President on the state of politics and also what was happening at the university.

The three of us — Jokonya, Utete and I — went to meet with the President at his house in Quorn Avenue, Mt Pleasant, which had been acquired by the party.

We briefed him on how we had started to reform the university. There used to be one head of department, a white person all the time. So, we introduced a rotational chairmanship to allow blacks to also get involved.

We were canvassing — particularly Ngoni Chideya and I — for a black vice-chancellor. In fact, we contributed, to a large extent, for Professor Kamba who was a lecturer there to get that position.

The President emphasised the need for us to continue the struggle.

Yes, after elections, if Zanu wins, he was going to take some of us into the civil service. So, not surprisingly, I was one of the first to be taken, joining Government on June 1, 1980.

I was interviewed — at the instigation of the President — by Dr Nathan Shamuyarira.

Then, I was Secretary to the non-executive President Canaan Banana (1980 to November 1982). Naturally, I had the opportunity to have more interface with the President.

He was Prime Minister then, so he would come to confer with the President.

But, of course, he was executive; the President was non-executive.

What it meant, really, was Canaan Banana was being briefed on what was taking place in Government and then they shared views. I attended those meetings.

In November 1982, I was promoted.

All promotions have to be sanctioned by whoever is in an executive position, in this case the Prime Minister. I was appointed Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Manpower Planning and Development.

I was in charge of research and planning. When the ministry was merged with the Ministry of Labour, I also took charge of manpower planning, labour and employment creation, which position helped me to assist in the development of most of our human resources, helping the President because he had the foresight that we must develop human capital.

Later, the President saw it fit that I be transferred to Foreign Affairs as a Senior Deputy Secretary for Political and Economic Affairs, and eventually appointed Ambassador to the then Soviet Union, which had 15 states that are now independent. I also covered Poland and Iran.

I was to become Secretary to the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare (1994 to 1996).

Then I was transferred to be a Senior Secretary for Administration in the Office of the President where, technically, I was the number two to Dr Utete.

We worked together; I was now participating in briefings, in other words, meeting the President twice a week.

In 2003, I was appointed Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet.

From these encounters, these are the impressions which stick out and are still relevant today:

I was impressed by His Excellency’s unique intelligence. I think nobody can doubt on virtually all aspects of human development in general — African politics, international relations, revolutionary literature and experience.

Sometimes when he is so relaxed, he can quote excerpts even from Shakespeare (and others) which are still vivid.

I don’t think some of us can remember even a line. But he is that kind of serious person with a good memory.

He can articulate and captivate you most of the time.

I was equally, at that point and even now, impressed by his principled position on issues relating to fundamental human rights. No matter what some people say about him on human rights, he understands; also as a legal issue, freedom from all colonial and neo-colonial oppression and respect for the principle of constitutionalism.

These principles also became so clear when, for instance, after the elections of 2008, which were not conclusive, he accepted a run-off in terms of Zimbabwe’s constitution.

Even when he won, there were discussions (involving the MDC formations). He went in reluctantly.

But, again, as a man of principle, he assured most of us, including his political colleagues, that he would get into it, but people should not be worried as he would never sell out.

And for sure, he was part and parcel of the inclusive Government.

There was give-and-take with the MDC formations, but he never compromised on issues of principle.

First, he wanted constitutionalism to be respected. For instance, the verdict of the run-off became evident that he won.

So, he was supposed to have created the Government and if he wanted to bring in the others, it was supposed to be by his own volition.

However, as you know, there was Sadc facilitation. We had a facilitator in the person of then President Thabo Mbeki (of South Africa).

President Mugabe accepted. He said, “Ok, fine. Let’s get into it.”

There was lots of negotiation on parcelling out ministries.

Even then, as Chair of Cabinet, he managed to steer the whole process, though people were antagonistic towards each other initially. Some were surprised that we could finish the business of Government and do something within an acceptable period as if it were one party.

It was his ability to manage contradictions.

The teas (with then Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai) were part of that management of contradictions.

There were serious contradictions at the beginning; our positions were questioned. There were reports that I was taking the role of the Prime Minister.

But later I was joking with the then Prime Minister.

He encountered problems when he had his mini-Cabinet reshuffle, which, normally, under the Constitution, he had to recommend to the President.

He said to me, “I didn’t know that dealing with Government was so difficult. I only reshuffled two people and I created war within my party. I don’t know how the President does it.”

They started respecting President Mugabe, the leader.

They revered him; they saw him now — that fatherly figure I referred to earlier — that he means well, he means well beyond their narrow party ideology. He is for the nation.

Generally, if you work with him, he has a fatherly disposition. That’s why most of his staff refers to him as baba.

He asks you about your welfare; how you are, your family, health and so forth, and even proffers advice.

And partly his humility and ability to listen to others, which is his quality, ensured he managed the inclusive Government.

That ability enabled him to work with them well. It was educative to (the MDC formations). They realised that they were possibly painting the President too negatively and that was not correct. They understood the man.

Some (after losing the elections) said, “If we are needed, even if it’s a Zanu-PF Government, talk to the President; possibly we can come and serve because we want to serve.”

(They said they wanted roles) in any capacity. You could tell that it was because of how they had been handled.

To me, it was amusing.

It was the President’s ability to deal with the people. They enjoyed; they were very reluctant for the inclusive Government to end.

One thing that has also stood out is that the President is a man of the people, a Pan-Africanist and champion and voice of the marginalised, especially against unjust and non-democratic international political and economic order.

He has always been consistent about that. He is a moving repository of Zimbabwean and African history. If you want to know about our history, politics and even culture, he is a living archive.

President’s Office & Cabinet

The role of the Chief Secretary, as Head of the Civil Service, is to assist the President to manage Government at the level of the bureaucracy.

In other words, it is ensuring they perform, working with other institutions like the Public Service Commission, the Health Services Board and other commissions like the Judicial Services Commission.

When we meet to review with his Vice-Presidents present, it helps him understand the challenges we are facing.

He can then proffer advice or directives on how that can be done.

The Chief Secretary also helps the President to interface with his ministers. Yes, sometimes he has daily meetings with some, but not all.

The Chief Secretary has to help him ensure ministers are available for Cabinet. I have to know who is there. I prepare a ministers’ schedule of attendance.

I help the President to clear those who are travelling; what we call Cabinet Application Authority. They have to be cleared before travelling.

So, I have to have a diary of who is where and who has met tragedy in the family. He can ask me even when I am not in the office: “Where is so and so? Can you get him.” “He went outside the country.” “Where?” I should have that.

I am the interface if he wants to communicate with the ministers; he asks me to do it for him. I deal with the ministers.

That’s why the Chief Secretary is the Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet. I attend to functions relating to the work of the ministers.

There could also be interface with the Judiciary, although that can be done directly politically through the minister responsible for Justice.

Whenever the President is needed to address Parliament, I link with the ministries to ensure we have prepared the appropriate speech.

For instance, if it’s the Opening of Parliament, there has to be a legislative agenda. If it’s the State of the Nation Address, I have to link with ministries so that the address captures most of the essential aspects of our socio-political economy.

When we work on bigger documents like Zim-Asset, I have to co-ordinate first with colleagues in the civil service and other stakeholders in the private sector to ensure it is properly co-ordinated; we have seriously consulted.

Then ministries are consulted.

In the process of Zim-Asset, he allowed us to organise a workshop for ministers which we did and got their views and put the thing together.

It was then taken through the political process to the ruling party and it became a document of the party.

We are then directed to implement it.

Sometimes, erroneously, people think the Chief Secretary is advisor to the President. No. He has so much advice. He can get his advice from his Vice-Presidents, ministers, from you; because he listens.

He can discuss with you informally if he thinks it is a good idea.

President’s weekly diary

Monday is confined usually to briefings.

These briefings are attended by — from the official side, the bureaucrats — the Chief Secretary and my deputies, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, the Director-General of Security and the Secretary for Media, Information and Broadcasting Services.

The Vice-Presidents and the President will be there. The briefing has various sessions. The first session has all of us there, and will last possibly two hours, having started at 10am.

The President has to get a briefing on what the media are saying — both internal and international media — and the briefing is usually given by the Secretary for Information.

He will then read papers to only consolidate, but at least there will be an overview of what is going on (from) the State and independent media.

Then he will also get a briefing from the Secretary for Foreign Affairs.

Generally, if there are any other issues necessary to all of us, the one from security can give pointers.

There is a second session where we leave, and the President remains with his Vice-Presidents for the security briefing.

In the third session, he gets a report from the Commissioner-General of Police on the crime situation. I also attend that briefing.

When this is finished, he has a briefing with his Vice-Presidents and I.

He has given his Vice Presidents some management and monitoring roles. So, if they have issues to discuss with him, they mention them.

If there are issues I have to take on board in terms of our civil service bureaucracy, if it is about inefficiencies, things not moving in the right direction, we discuss and I am asked to tackle certain issues.

I am also expected to give a briefing, generally about the state of our food situation all the time, in other words, the movement of grain internally and outside.

I go through the Cabinet agenda with the President — item by item. Who is presenting what? What are the expected outcomes?

(This is) so that he is fully briefed when he comes to Cabinet the following day.

When I am done, he can remain with his Vice Presidents. He can do other things if has the time. Often he remains.

He has appointments with some ministers; dignitaries from outside. Sometimes he finishes even as late as eight o’clock.

Tuesday is Cabinet day.

At nine o’clock; we are in this room where he chairs Cabinet, where policy formulation is done. Cabinet’s role is to make final decisions on policies.

If ministries want to change or proffer policies to Cabinet, they have to get approval. But policy formulation starts with the ministry.

It involves consulting stakeholders and we are happy once that is done. We have systems here to monitor whether they would have really consulted.

And then it goes through the Cabinet system.

It is discussed first by the working party of officials, then ministers of Cabinet on a specific Cabinet committee. We have about 10 Cabinet standing committees.

After the committees have sifted, the chair brings the policy measures or suggestions to Cabinet, with the line minister buttressing.

It is then debated democratically and everybody’s satisfied. There is no voting in Cabinet; it is generally by consensus.

By Wednesday, I start working on a Cabinet matrix (decisions of Cabinet), and we send them to the relevant ministers who are going to implement.

I also copy the Vice-Presidents because they monitor. So, the President is generally not only involved in policy formulation, but in monitoring and evaluation.

During Monday meetings, he gets progress reports on policy implementation from the Vice-Presidents, from me.

Then we say we have constraints: I am not getting money. We subsequently discuss the money issue. If he wants further clarification, he can request the Finance Minister to come and see him.

This makes him a leader with all the facts in his hands. He is so alert, he knows what is happening.

You will be so surprised: There are days when, say, after Cabinet, at five o’clock, some of us want to leave, especially if he is here.

He will still be in the office, working. So, sometimes I have had to call his secretary to ask if the President was still there and she would say yes.

All those things (that he is no longer fit) are myths because he works, I can tell you. Sometimes he goes on beyond nine o’clock or 10 o’clock.

He’s amazing.

He is a person . . . possibly that generation’s stamina is through work and exercise, of course. He is particular; he even tells his ministers to have regular check-ups with doctors. He does that himself on a regular basis.

So, he is fit — that I can tell you because we work with him. Generally, he leaves Wednesday for party matters.

He goes to Zanu-PF Headquarters and meets the party leadership. He also combines it with office work. He has to sign Bills, clear appointments, promotions.

The Public Service Commission deals with all promotions up to the level of deputy director. Anything above that has to be cleared by the President.

On Bills, you read in the Gazette that I would have written “has been assented to by the President.” He would have signed them. And he does it on Wednesdays, generally. He reads them, he goes through every document.

He corrects if you apply for Cabinet authority and your grammar is not right.

Even a speech; if you write, he will correct. I think they were well taught during that time. We got a bit of the teaching style of that time where we were doing handwriting.

You could fail because your handwriting was not legible. So, he is very particular about neatness and so on.

Then Thursdays; presentation of credentials by ambassadors.

Sometimes there could be six ambassadors and he will have tete-a-tete with each ambassador who presents their credentials.

He gets calls by foreign dignitaries, local persons, and then reverts to office work.

He also meets Government and private individuals. At some point, he called me for something at about 7.30 in the evening as he was still working.

On Friday, there are usually security briefings, office work.

When he has time, he can visit his farm briefly and even go to the communal home area in Zvimba. He always wants to touch base with the elders there to a point where even when they have squabbles, they ask him to come and solve them.

That makes him knowledgeable about challenges there, which can be generalised to other rural areas.

Outside of this, we also have to make time so that he can launch projects.

He will have other official engagements outside the country in Sadc, Comesa, the United Nations and bilaterals. He has a very very tight programme.

So, whoever says (he is not fit), we don’t know. (These are) totally, totally misplaced (notions).

In fact, most of these people who say so are sometimes themselves not fit. He has a stamina, that I can tell you.

So, that’s not correct.

(When he works late) it is a broad spectrum (he will be working on) because some issues might just arise or some ministers might have special briefings.

Major decisions cannot just be made without his knowledge. That would not be courtesy. He also wants to be briefed about everything.

One thing you must do when you work with him is clear whatever has to be cleared. Don’t lie to the President.

He wants honest people because he himself is an honest man.

(If you are dishonest) then you part ways. In fact, you are no longer trusted; you feel unwanted. He wants a person who can be trusted because he also bestows trust in you. You have to reciprocate.

Really, that’s one thing we’ve learnt from working with him.

You need to imbibe his kind of character and principles to be able to be happy working with him. He doesn’t want double-tongued people.

You tell him (this), but talk differently outside. No. He doesn’t like that. He wants hardworking people because he is hardworking himself.

He doesn’t want lazy people. You have to achieve because he measures you also in terms of your outputs. That’s why we try by all means to recruit people who can deliver.

It was his idea (to introduce Results-Based Management in Government).

He also introduced it when he was Chairing Sadc. He changed the Secretariat, bringing in a business-like work ethic based on RBM.

It’s then that you realise people are happy when they are working, working for results. One of the major outcomes there was the putting together of a Regional Industrialisation Strategy based on beneficiation and value addition which mirrors one of our Zim-Asset clusters.

It went beyond Sadc; it went to the African Union where he was chairing when the AU, for the first time, developed a development agenda for 2063 based on industrialisation, beneficiation and value addition.

He injected a new spirit; rejuvenated the pan-Africanism ideology that was almost missing, especially within Sadc when he promoted this Mbita programme where we had to chronicle the history of our liberation movements in the whole of Southern Africa which were co-ordinated by the Liberation Committee that was given a home by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

And because of the unique role played by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, he made sure the AU also gave him a fitting honour by naming the African Liberation Hall the Nyerere Hall.

One feels so happy.

Former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa was thanking the President on behalf of his president for putting Mwalimu’s role up for recognition.

It is really refreshing to see that his policies at home . . .

Yes, they might look like they are taking time, but there are imperatives why it is like that. The environment was not good, but slowly, it’s coming (together).

And regrettably, we were victims of the El Nino-induced drought disaster. We will have to live through it.

We put in a massive appeal, and we are working on a massive management response where we have various committees, virtually involving everyone to ensure we manage the crisis.

And he is the one directing all this.

You can, therefore, see that when some people allege that Government is auto-piloting, you don’t dignify those comments with a reply because you will be wasting your time.

If you reply to a blatant falsehood, you eventually engage a person.

Because a person who has nothing to offer can want to take you to another level even when arguing. The best thing is to just keep quiet.

That’s why some of us don’t want (to be in) the Press; it’s very rare to discuss publicly.

Some say you are lucky to have the opportunity to interface with such an intellectual giant who has seen it all.

So, as he celebrates his 92nd birthday, it is a celebration of a life; a life full of sacrifice on his part.

He had to even forego his job.

Remember, when he came back on holiday from Ghana, he found the struggle now at a certain height. He attended one of the meetings where they asked him to chair.

Later they said, “No, you are not going back. Join us.”

He had to write to Nkrumah: “Sorry, I can’t come back. I have to join the struggle.” And that’s the kind of person he is. A person who sacrificed…

When you see some people abusing such leaders because of his humility, you wonder where we came from, especially the youngsters of today.

It’s our collective responsibility — the media included — to work on some of these aspects. Some of us should also do that in our various capacities.

It’s a celebration which we should be proud of.

He is 92; he has been kept by God for all this time for a purpose. Let’s value that purpose, and take advantage.

We wish our media could also help us in celebrating with everybody in a jubilant manner rather than as is the past with some sections of the media, always portraying a caricature of the person of the President.

He deserves something much better because he has seen it all. People should write the truth about the man of his character.

He is a unique character who has been bestowed to us by God.

We should certainly celebrate his 92nd birthday with dignity, with happiness.


Dr Misheck Sibanda is the Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet. He was talking to The Sunday Mail News Editor Morris Mkwate in Harare on February 19, 2016


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  • Charles

    Well said and eye opening Dr Sibanda!

  • gure mapeta

    He should be the next President. he knows it all.