Farewell to four African Heroes in the last week of July 2020

SANF 20 no 23 – by Phyllis Johnson
This is the week of Heroes in Africa and the diaspora, with the death of four men who made a difference.

They fought for freedom and stood large in their different places, all were visionaries who were inspired by an earlier generation of visionary mentors, and will be remembered for their honesty, dignity and determination. They span three generations.

All four were still very active in making their societies a better place, and all were role models for their peers and others. All four passed away in the last days of July 2020.

These heroes were quiet, principled people who spoke their mind and learned to speak bluntly in a quiet voice, so people listened. They fought for human rights and democracy, and against racial segregation and oppression.

And all of these are role models who should have a place of pride in our history books.

Benjamin Mkapa
Benjamin William Mkapa, third President of the United Republic of Tanzania and student of Julius Nyerere.

When he died on 23 July at age 81, his peers eulogized him as a dedicated builder of African unity and regional integration, and a peace-maker.

He often quoted his mentor in urging the youth of Africa and the diaspora to take on impossible tasks, and to run while others walk, saying, “It can be done, play your part.”

His generation did it, dedicating their lives to liberation and independence. He was a young boy born in southern Tanzania, who grew up in a colonial state, left to earn a degree in English literature and returned home to become a journalist, ambassador, cabinet minister and President.

He believed passionately in African unity and integration, economic development and peace. And he showed us how it can be done.

He was chosen by his party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) to contest the Presidency in 1995, which he won handily, and served two terms, increasing his popular support in the election for his second term in 2000.

He focused mainly on reorganizing and liberalizing the economy to function more efficiently, but was also the first President to work with a post-colonial and post-apartheid continent of Africa. He described good leadership as “a leader who wants to serve, rather than be served.”

The last line of Mkapa’s memoirs, published last year, says, “I will leave it to my God and you to decide what difference I have made in this world.”

Perrance Shiri
Another hero who was shaped by Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania and Samora Machel’s Mozambique, was Perrance Shiri, Air Chief Marshall (Rtd) and Zimbabwe’s Minister of Lands, Agriculture, Water and Rural Resettlement, and a top commander of the liberation war.

He was also a leader who served and who worked hard to achieve the goals he had fought for.

He trained in Tanzania and then he trained others who became commanders themselves, at Mgagao. He was a member of the military High Command of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and commander of the north-east operational area known as Tete Province.

Perrance Shiri, who died on 29 July, was a freedom fighter, air force commander, minister and farmer, and also a mediator. He was involved in building the new Air Force of Zimbabwe.

Having abandoned his studies to join the war of liberation, he used every opportunity to study, until he achieved two Masters degrees while continuing to undertake national duties.

Shiri fought for the liberation of his country and won, as a respected guerrilla commander under General Josiah Tongogara, in the fight for land and education, instilling the same liberation values.

His most recent achievements of many were in land, water and food security, and the last one was formalized on the day that he passed, when an agreement was signed by government with the white commercial farmers for compensation for improvements, a milestone in re-engagement, bringing closure to this aspect of the land reform.

The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association said Shiri was “an exceptional war strategist” who trained the young guerrilla fighters who moved unnoticed into then Salisbury and fired rockets into the oil storage tanks in the Southerton Industrial Zone, causing them to burn for several days, marking a significant milestone in the liberation war.

Perrance Shiri was the youngest of these four heroes, at 65.

Andrew Mlangeni
A little further south, South Africans were burying another hero who fought for freedom and against apartheid.

Andrew Mokete Mlangeni, at age 95 was the last living member of the Rivonia trialists including Nelson Mandela and others, who dedicated their youth to fight against apartheid and for justice, spent almost 30 years of their prime imprisoned on Robben Island, and then continued to be active on their release.

Mlangeni, like the other three, is a hero for Africans and the world, and a role model for honesty and commitment.

He was born in the Free State and grew up in South West Town (Soweto), Johannesburg, where he got his first job as a bus driver. He joined the African National Congress (ANC) starting with the Youth League, and was a branch delegate to the famous Congress of the People that approved the Freedom Charter.

He became a journalist, and was among the first ANC cadres to go for military training in China. On his return, following a police raid on Lilliesleaf Farm at Rivonia, he was charged with sabotage and conspiracy at the time when most of the uMkhonto weSizwe High Command were arrested.

Eight of the Rivonia trialists were sentenced to life imprisonment and Mlangeni spent 27 years on Robben Island. Soon after his release, he was elected a Member of Parliament in the new South Africa where he served for 15 years before retiring and continuing to advocate for justice and peace.

He died in Tshwane on 21 July.

John Lewis
The fourth freedom fighter is John Robert Lewis, a serving United States Congressman born into poverty in the southern state of Alabama during the height of racial segregation and oppression, who campaigned for civil rights with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

He was one of the young activists who tested the strict and violent segregation in the south by going into restricted areas, including buses, pressing for voting rights at a time when voting in the US was for whites only, a democratic right won by black voters in 1968.

Leader of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to the State capitol Montgomery at the age of 25, he was seriously beaten by state troopers in a violent confrontation known as Bloody Sunday.

Although still a youth, he helped to organize the march on Washington, when King made his famous speech, “I have a dream… that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

He was first elected to the US Congress in 1986 and was re-elected 16 times representing Atlanta, Georgia, and described as “Atlanta’s servant leader”.

He died on 17 July at age 80 and was the first black lawmaker to lie in state in the US Capitol Rotunda. The eulogy at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was delivered by former US President Barrack Obama. In attendance were four former US Presidents.

The website of the National Museum of African American History and Culture said simply, “Thank You, Rep. John Lewis”.

So we will add:
Thank You, Air Chief Marshall Perrance Shiri.
Thank You, Andrew Mlangeni.
And Asante Sana Sana, Benjamin W. Mkapa.  sardc.net

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