The Sunday Mail
Benjamin Mkapa changed your life, whether you know it or not. He is one of your role models and heroes.
Regardless of where you live in Southern Africa, he had an influence on your life. He did not tell you that, he would not, but now that he is gone, we can see the large space he occupied.
It is not exactly empty, because it is filled with the wisdom he left behind, but it is empty of his person, his humour and his laughter.
The region is much poorer without him, even if this does not show on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures.
He was just a person who grew up in southern Tanzania, declined his father’s plans for him to become a priest and became a President instead.
But that was much later.
First he went to St Francis College, Pugo, near Dar es Salaam. This was in the colonial days before Tanganyika was independent, and there were not many schools to choose from if you were young and African.
It was at Pugo that he met his teacher and mentor, Julius Nyerere, who gained the title Mwalimu (Teacher) at Pugo in the early 1950s where he was the only black teacher.
One of his many students, Benjamin William Mkapa went on to the prestigious Makerere University in Uganda graduating with a BA (Hons) degree in English Literature in 1960.
This was a formative period in his life and he retained his passion for reading and literature. Meanwhile, Nyerere negotiated for independence from Britain.
Tanganyika gained independence in 1961, the first country in Eastern and Southern Africa to do so after the Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar in 1960, with Mkapa’s teacher as the first Prime Minister and a year later, the first President.
Mkapa joined Tanzania’s Foreign Ministry as a junior officer and was sent to Columbia University in New York for a special one-year diploma in international relations.
Then he became a journalist. After a short attachment at the Scottish Daily Mirror, he became managing editor of the party newspapers in English and Kiswahili, and then managing editor of the national newspaper.
It was in this period that he formed a close, life-long friendship with my late husband, David Martin, who worked as a journalist in Tanzania in the same period.
Mainland Tanganyika and the island of Zanzibar had by this time formed a union to become the United Republic of Tanzania.
In the mid-1970s, Mkapa served as press secretary to the President during a strategic period of independence in Mozambique and Angola, and bargaining over independence for Zimbabwe and Namibia, and ending apartheid in Namibia and South Africa.
During this period, he learned diplomacy close to the source, at the feet of the master teacher, Mwalimu.
Both Nyerere and Mkapa had a strong belief in the power of knowledge and information, and the next post for Mkapa was to establish the Tanzanian news agency, Shihata, before Mwalimu drew this intelligent young man with a bottomless ability to learn, into politics and governance by appointing him as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
In 1959, before independence, Mwalimu had made his famous statement saying that Tanganyika wanted to shine a light beyond its borders (a candle on Mt Kilimanjaro) “giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where there was before only humiliation”.
This was an announcement of his agenda to support the liberation of Africa from colonial rule, that Tanganyika would not be truly independent until the rest of Africa was also independent.
He put his country at the forefront and Mkapa walked that route with him. Together, they worked towards the liberation and independence of Southern Africa and the formation and growth of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which both leaders supported passionately.
Mkapa would say that he was Nyerere’s messenger and both of them, like most Tanzanians, would say they were only “doing their duty”.
In the party, he worked his way up from the youth league, central committee, secretariat and the national executive. He was eventually selected as Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) candidate for president, which he accepted through his commitment to service rather than personal ambition.
He contested the first multi-party elections in 1995, which he won handily, with 62 percent of the vote, increasing his popular vote to 70 percent in 2000 for his second term in office.
Mkapa inherited a politically independent continent, after South Africa’s historic majority elections to end the entrenched apartheid system.
He took the agenda further, setting the example for economic liberation that has resulted in Tanzania being declared a “lower middle-income country” in June 2020. Some of the most important decisions designed to lay the foundation for social and economic prosperity were made when Mkapa served in State House.
What others say about him is encapsulated in the message from President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, who said he “worked tirelessly for integration, peace and progress of the region”.
There are many lessons we can learn from his life — he supported the liberation of Southern Africa that has brought back dignity and solidarity, and he illuminated the road to prosperity.
I have difficulty presenting him in the past tense, as his wisdom is very much with us — he read and listened, and believed in peace, African unity and progress.
He worked for it and he took us far, and he would expect us to continue. He would say, “It can be done, play your part.”
In his own words: On land, agriculture
“Southern Africa cannot avoid the sensitive question of land and agrarian reform if it is to overcome the devastating cycles of food insecurity, and ensure that agriculture plays its important role for economic growth, poverty reduction and broad-based development. . .
“Let SADC speak with one voice, and let the outside world understand, that to us African land is much more than a factor of production; we are spiritually anchored in the lands of our ancestors.
“We are truly ‘sons and daughters of the soil’. To dispossess us of land is not only to consign us to perpetual economic deprivation, it is also an affront to our spirit, to our sociological sense of being, to our very humanity and our inalienable right to dignity as a people.”
“We are tired of being lectured on democracy by the very countries, which under colonialism, either directly denied us the rights of free citizens, or were indifferent to our suffering and yearning to break free and be democratic.”
“We want to send out a clear message that we fought for freedom and democracy. Freedom and democracy were not given to us on a platter.”
“Real democracy is grown from within, and is an evolution, not a revolution. There is no one size fits all.”
“Imported and imposed systems of governance that pay no heed to the actual social, economic and cultural circumstances pertaining in new democracies, will not take root.”
“Principles and guidelines should be assessed on our terms, and our yardsticks, not on those of others. Above all, multi-party democracy and its attendant elections must never be a cover for the destabilisation of our countries.”
“Our political systems and institutions still mirror, to a large extent, systems and institutions of the former colonial powers. What most of us in leadership in Africa are has roots in this colonial past. We still believe that to be educated and to qualify for leadership, one must speak English, French or Portuguese.”
“Africa has to bring to a close this sad chapter of conflict. Our former colonial masters must be courageous enough to accept part of the blame and support Africa as it seeks lasting solutions to these conflicts.”
“We must now create systems of political and economic management that are strong, that are resilient and that are capable of outliving their founders and current leaders.”
“Democratic governance can only take root in Africa if leaders groom potential successors to the presidency. We need to identify potential leaders early, and develop and nurture them.”
Phyllis Johnson is an author and historian, and a founding director of the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC).