My maternal grandfather's very name said it all … Ndabakayithethwa! (Literally, no room for discussion!) He was this towering centre of power and authority with an amazing, imposing presence in the village as in his home. He loved and spoilt me to death and I enjoyed the licence to climb all over him at will. But I couldn't help notice, even at 10, that his mere approach into his homestead, often after a couple days of unexplained absence, would terrify all his children, his goats and his chickens and all his wives alike and send them scarring for wanton refuge in their respective rondavels, peeping surreptitiously, to gauge what mood he was in… only to re-emerge, in their rehearsed best behaviour, prim and proper, to take orderly turns, all protocol observed and sheepishly greet and address "The Lion". I loved him dearly, and the man formed my earliest notion of power, dictatorship and male dominion. His word was always final and without the possibility of questioning.
But my most enduring bond was with my three grandmothers, maHlogwane, maNdlela and maHlabangane who were with me 24/7. Being the cherished grandchild, I had unbridled access to both worlds, and I enjoyed sole rights to, what you may term the Ndabakayithethwa Advisory Committee (NAC). So often, I put his soft spot for me and my fearless, youthful exuberance to great use for many. On their part, his wives would use my unlimited licence, to channel their not-so-comfortable questions, grievances, queries to their feared hubby. On his part, he earnestly sought to hear of the juicy goings-on and homestead undercurrents that shaped the real motivations and feelings of his diverse family.
I neither had fear of him or any real appreciation of whatever power he may wielded over me and so I spoke as frank and as bold to him about soft and hard issues alike in our occasional granddad-grandson jaunts in the fields or by his monstrous kraal. Always, he held the homestead happiness button in his own hand, switching it on and off according to his mood swings. In some respects, his brand of dictatorship was overshadowed by his stinking wealth and his crowd of "happy slaves" - but slaves still. In weird combinations, both my grandfathers must have used heavy concoctions of fear, tough love, wealth and juju to sustain a calm balance and the enduring affection of three women each for over 40 years. (I'm failing to hold three days of peace with just one!)
Every night, on Ndabakayithethwa's "dinner table" we ate both loads of great food and loads of pretence. The King, while "happy", always seemed to hedge himself from possible attack with a veneer of unwritten power. The wives, sons and daughters in turn were in "happy spirits", but always tense and careful not to cross forbidden lines. Both parties tip-toed around each other as if on egg-shells, yet those were the happiest homes I've ever experienced. It was no planned or conscious master-stroke, but I always picked the homestead vibe and used my granddads "invitation to his inner circle" to as it were, to speak truth to power. He loved it.I do not know how much humans or Africans, even at their most sophisticated, are capable of really breaking with tradition, especially when it is rooted in their culture. Although, unlike his own, ours was a father soft as wool, as liberal as they come: although he openly declared to us and the broader family that he was breaking with granddad's trade in fear and his door was open for business - although our father not only welcomed, but also encouraged criticism and open scrutiny of his leadership quality and granted us freedom to challenge his decisions, choices and practices for the greater good of the family… the overwhelming atmosphere around that dinner table remained decidedly tense, toxic, skewed and too fraught with mixed signals and yesterday's fear to provide for a free, no-holds-barred and productive dinner tete-a-tete.
I find absolutely nothing amiss. In fact, I find everything good with a compromised President Emmerson Mnangagwa's continuous effort to open hitherto closed doors, whether clandestinely, to woo and win over opinion leaders from opposition corridors or sincerely, to bring the voice of the people to as close to his ear as possible. It is really up to those who find that ED-ear, how best to use it! If nothing else, the primary mandate of civil society, is to seek and find effective audience with those charged with delivering services to society, with government leaders, leaders of councils and duty-bearers at every level - and none more urgently than the highest office in the land. From his decision to rope in young turks, none Zanu-PF technocrats in the Cabinet, to seeking the counsel of business moguls and influencers from ranks hitherto frowned upon, to the attempt at inter-party dialogue and the latest reach -out of Bulawayo civil society, I cannot fault the principle. Admittedly, none of these efforts,in intent, in process and in content is without major blemish.
The fact that the man is himself severely compromised as a kingpin of the past and a creature of the military junta, at his mercy he serves, cannot make his situation easy. The fact that he has to contend with a stubborn inner circle of "chinhu-chedu" cartels who cannot let go of their perennial looting orgy of national resources for personal enrichment and want nothing to do with transparent governance and a Zimbabwe-for-all, cannot make his work any easier. To the extent possible, the perennial vulture cult have insulated Mnangagwa from effective access of the citizens and pursued strategies to continue ring-fencing state resources to themselves.
The fact that those amongst us, ordinarily shunned and ostracised by Zanu-PF government culture and known to defend the rights of citizens from the streets, who have found a place on the dinner table and have ED's ear and ready audience are overawed by the aura of authority and their sudden proximity to power. The fact that those invited to advise frankly, convert from champions of the people to overnight ambassadors of ED, that we drop our usual human rights mics and fumble with forks, knives and dinner etiquette doesn't make Ndabakayithethwa or ED a bad guy - It only makes us a lumpen lot of fools and makes this Zimbabwe's most lost opportunity at change.
Zii Masiye (email@example.com) writes elsewhere on social media as Balancing Rocks.
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