Chasing the elusive Zimbabwean dream – a review of Arthur Mutambara’s new autobiography
Chasing the elusive Zimbabwean dream
Arthur Guseni Oliver Mutambara, a world-renowned robotics professor and one of the most intriguing figures in Zimbabwean public life, has rarely written about the private dimensions of his life – until now.In this 249-page memoir, In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream: An Autobiography of Thought Leadership, the first of a three-book series that explores his thoughts and philosophical disposition over a period of 35 years, he delivers a fascinating, provocative and rigorously engrossing tour de force.
Volume one is sub-titled The Formative Years and the Big Wide World (1983-2002).
But what exactly is “the Zimbabwean dream”? Before we even venture there, we must also ask: what does it mean to be Zimbabwean?
This is a nation which held immense promise at independence in 1980. The Zimbabwe dollar was stronger than the US dollar. The country boasted sub-Saharan Africa’s most industrialised economy after South Africa.
Today, 37 years later, there is no national currency. The UN says the rate of formal unemployment has reached a staggering 95% and 72% of the population lives in “extreme poverty”. What “dream” can the world possibly expect from a country led by a 93-year-old president who is eyeing re-election next year?
Surely, dreaming is for tomorrow’s people, not yesterday’s men.
To locate the Zimbabwean dream, we must trace its roots. Mutambara, who turned 50 on May 25, proffers a compelling argument. In his eyes, the Zimbabwean dream can only be realised, first, through a shared national vision and, second, through the creation of what he terms “brand Zimbabwe”.
“For example, we could aspire to make Zimbabwe a globally competitive economy, a prosperous nation with a high quality of life for our people by 2040. Ostensibly, we can then conceive three supporting pillars for this vision. The first pillar should be about the economy, while the second focuses on society, and the third pillar deals with our politics,” he writes.
Mutambara is at his eloquent best when he elucidates the meaning of “a shared Zimbabwean dream”. He does not prescribe a formulaic dream but proposes the collective thought process that could lead to the expression of “a quintessentially Zimbabwean Dream”.
Here his narrative – flowing crisply in present continuous tense – teases and tantalises. Can Zimbabweans dare to dream, in spite of all their well-documented woes? Unfortunately, in this part of the autobiography there is not much meat for readers to really sink their teeth into. But wait a minute, could this be the rocket scientist’s way of rousing our curiosity ahead of the publication of the next two books in the trilogy?
As I read this book, the meaning of “thought leadership” permeated my musings. When Joel Kuntzman, editor-in-chief of Booz, Allen & Hamilton magazine, coined the term in 1994, he emphasised the importance of having ideas “that merit attention”. Mutambara defines the term as “intellectual influence through innovative and pioneering thinking”.
As a journalist, I have found the concept of “thought leadership” captivating. A related term is “public intellectual”. The legendary rabble-rouser Christopher Hitchens, who shares Oxonian leanings with Mutambara, once famously remarked that the duty of the intellectual is essentially twofold: first, to argue for complexity and to insist that phenomena in the world of ideas should not be sloganised or reduced to easily repeated formulae and, second, the intellectual must show that some things are simple and ought not to be obfuscated.
In an intellectually robust and bare-knuckled manner that has come to typify his persona, Mutambara traces the thread of values that has defined his journey from high school top-achiever, leading scientist, business consultant and his eventful plunge into the cauldron of Zimbabwe’s notoriously unforgiving national politics.
There are startlingly vivid accounts of Mutambara’s stand against President Robert Mugabe’s fevered machinations to impose a one-party state in the late 1980s. Amid economic meltdown at the time, students at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), led by Mutambara among other organisers, displayed amazing bravery and struck a chord with the toiling masses.
Like most Zimbabweans of his generation, Mutambara was an ardent supporter of the national liberation project. In those days, he even described Mugabe as “our upright and incorruptible revolutionary”. But when the revolution went off the rails as corrupt and autocratic leaders subverted the people’s struggle, he committed himself to mobilising against them.
One of the most vexing puzzles in Zimbabwe in the aftermath of the power-sharing Government of National Unity from 2009 to 2013, has been: Where is Arthur Mutambara these days? The autobiography will answer the question. After the 2013 general election, he withdrew from political life. The former deputy prime minister is currently president of the African News Agency, a technology-driven multimedia news platform.
Among the formative experiences in Mutambara’s life was the anti-corruption demonstration of September 1988 by UZ students. He was secretary-general and authored a statement denouncing Mugabe’s government.
In October 1988, Mugabe denounced the protesting students, dismissing them as foolish renegades, and abruptly terminated the state-funded grants and loans of 14 of the 15 students’ union leaders. But they could not touch Mutambara – his university education was being financed by an Anglo American Corporation scholarship. Despite expending his energies on what he describes as “revolutionary confrontation”, he did not neglect his studies and continued winning the university’s coveted book prizes.
There was no viable political opposition in Zimbabwe in the immediate aftermath of the 1987 Unity Accord which saw veteran nationalist Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo’s party Zapu captured and subsumed by Mugabe’s Zanu. With no opposition in what was now a de facto one-party state, the daring actions of students went a long way in galvanising the citizenry. The government hit back viciously, deploying police and soldiers on campus. Badly injured, Mutambara was held in detention without trial for six weeks.
Mutambara attained a BSc(honours) in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the UZ. He applied for a Rhodes Scholarship and a Fulbright Scholarship. Incredibly, he was offered both. He opted for the Rhodes Scholarship which took him to Oxford University in Britain where he was awarded a Master of Science in Computer Engineering and subsequently a PhD in Robotics and Mechatronics.
It was during his days at Merton College that Mutambara joined the Oxford Union debate chamber and rubbed shoulders with celebrated intellectual dissidents.
The graduate programmes and examinations at Oxford are exacting and demanding, even for the most intelligent of students. Mutambara completed the Master’s degree in one year and the doctorate in just over two years. Donning formal attire and an academic gown, he orally defended his thesis, in a record 45 minutes, stunning his supervisors. It takes some candidates six years to attain a PhD and others have either dropped out or committed suicide in utter frustration.
In his usual brash manner, Mutambara basks in the glory of his achievements at Oxford. Aged 28, he had a BSc, MSc and PhD under his belt. He said: “This African has just cracked the doctorate in two years and two months, and passed without any changes! The traditional Oxford establishment, while pleased with my achievements, looks a bit perturbed. I guess the African has outperformed the master, in his own territory. What an example of effective counter penetration!”
The man is oozing with confidence. At first glance, there are segments of his autobiography which suggest vainglorious boasting. It only takes a nuanced understanding of his personality from the formative days of Hartzell High School to the “City of Dreaming Spires”, to fully comprehend where he is coming from and where he is going.
Besides, although Mutambara has his flaws like every human being, he has plenty to be proud of: a sharp intellect, a fluency in debate, an easy wit, a fiercely independent worldview, and the willingness to denunciate dogma.
Oxford is not the end of his journey. In 1995 he sets out for the US, “the belly of the beast”, where he works as a research scientist at Nasa, professor at the prestigious MIT and management consultant at McKinsey & Company.
In 2002, he returned to Africa, convinced he was now equipped with the necessary strategies and paradigms to make a difference. No doubt, the new book will spark debate and fuel speculation in Zimbabwe. Is Mutambara preparing to run for president? Time will tell.
Some excerpts from the book
As Secretary General, with Edgar Mbwembwe as President of the Students’ Union, our most significant action is the Anti-Corruption Demonstration of 29 September 1988.
We need a statement that articulates the issues, and contextualises our demands and action. I author the radical and militant Anti-Corruption Document, with the assistance of the SRC Secretary for Information and Publicity, Tendai Kufa. Though hard-hitting, the statement is measured in its critique of Mugabe as a leader, and Zanu-PF as an institution.
The historic and hugely successful Students’ Union demonstration leads to the arrest and detention of the 15 SRC leaders and UZ lecturers, Kempton Makamure and Eliphas Mukonoweshuro.
Prof Shadrack Gutto (later Director of the Centre for African Renaissance Studies at Unisa) is summarily deported from Zimbabwe. He is being accused of writing the Anti-Corruption Document that we have, in fact, authored.
As a foreigner, a Kenyan, the regime is merciless with him. He is given 48 hours to leave the country. The university government-funded grants and loans for 14 out of the 15 student leaders, are withdrawn. They cannot touch my funding, because, unlike the others, I am on an Anglo American Scholarship, awarded on the basis of outstanding academic merit and achievement.
The Mugabe regime is livid. It tries to pressurise Anglo American executives to withdraw my scholarship. They refuse. I surmise that the imperialists and capitalists have ways of making a positive contribution to the revolution! The Struggle has friends in the most unusual of places.
Two government ministers – Moven Mahachi, Minister of Home Affairs, and Dzingai Mutumbuka, Minister of Higher Education – are particularly virulent and Draconian in their persecution of students and lecturers. From the content of the Anti-Corruption Document, it is clear that we still consider Zanu-PF as our party, and Robert Mugabe as our leader.
We are actually appealing to Mugabe, our upright and incorruptible revolutionary, to take drastic steps against corruption. How wrong we are. Mugabe is out of the country when we go into the streets. Upon his return, he is incensed by our Anti-Corruption Demonstration and its document.
He denounces us as desperadoes without better things to do with our time. We are gutted, despondent and totally disillusioned. This is it. We are done with these running dogs of imperialism. We sever links with Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF. The divorce is final. This is October 1988.
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Confrontation with Mugabe over the one-party state
A direct confrontation with Mugabe over the one-party state ensues. Friday, 13 July 1990, is graduation day for the student groups that finished their studies in December 1989.
As the President of the Students’ Union, traditionally and by convention, I am part of the graduation process, which includes Mugabe as the Chancellor of the university.
I was in detention for six weeks in October and November 1989, and we are meeting for the first time since that ugly episode. Moreover, as a union, we have now taken an official position against the one-party system in Zimbabwe. After the main ceremony in the Great Hall, we all troop to the College Green’ where graduates and their guests are served food and beverages. This is where it all happens.
Vice Chancellor Walter Kamba introduces me to Mugabe, and the armed and menacing Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) operatives quickly encircle the three of us. Mugabe tries small talk, ‘How many new Engineering graduates were there today? When I graduated from Fort Hare in 1951, there were nine graduates in the whole country.’ I am not having any of that meaningless talk. I know I only have this man for a minute, if not seconds. I have to attack with stealth and vigour. I unexpectedly and aggressively barge in, completely out of the blue, saying, ‘We do not want to talk about any of that. We are completely against the one-party state by any means necessary. We do not want a one-party state in Zimbabwe!’
Mugabe is stunned. He looks dazed, but soon gathers his composure, and tries to shoot back, ‘If you take such extreme views we will be dismissive of your views.’ I was ready for him. ‘We have already dismissed your thinking, so it is not consequential whether you dismiss our views or not!’
Mugabe is visibly livid. His face is awash with discomfort. He is beside himself with rage. However, he cannot find his tongue. Kamba then moves with alacrity and dexterity in a rescue bid to calm the raging waters. ‘We need rational disputation we must have collegial dialogue.’ It is too late. I am not even listening. The mission is accomplished. The numerous security details who had completely encircled the three of us quickly whisk away the wounded and verbally incapacitated Mugabe.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Dealing with racism in the United States, in spite of high academic achievement
All these academic endeavours are not without amusing and invidious incidents with political undertones. In February 2000, while teaching at MIT, during my first Advanced Control Systems lecture, two white professors in the department decide to attend my class.
They explain their presence by saying they want to see how I present the subject matter in order to efficaciously link my material to theirs, as our subjects are related. I am not convinced. I suspect they are just checking to see whether the African can effectively teach at MIT – the top Engineering school in the world! Well, I have to deliver.
When I am done, the entire class of 26 students stands up in a rousing standing ovation. This is not even a seminar. It is a class lecture. The two observing colleagues sheepishly leave the room and go straight to the Department Head, Prof Edward Crawley, who later shares with me the content of their discussions. ‘I have been teaching here at MIT for 15 years. I have never seen such a rousing standing ovation given for a class lecture. This guy is good,’ one of the wowed colleagues says to Prof Crawley.
I quietly say to myself: ‘How patronising. Even with your 15 years at MIT, what makes you think that you are, or you understand, the benchmark or reference point for teaching ability or skill? Surely, an African or a black person can have capacity and ability, beyond and unexperienced by the best of white achievement. Black success or ability does not need to be referenced to, benchmarked by, or constrained by white standards. There is no need for such validation.’
Another amusing altercation occurs at the Nasa Lewis Research Centre in July 1997, during discussions about applications of my mobile robotics research results to US Unmanned Military Vehicles (UMVs) and the Nasa Mars Sojourner Rover.
In attendance are top officials from Nasa, the US Army and MIT. This is a high-level, top-secret meeting whose contents and outcomes the US researchers and scientists would not want to get to their competitors, in particular the Russians and the Chinese.
The US Army Chief Research Scientist – who is also a retired Four Star General – chairing the meeting, sternly looks at me and says: ‘Where are you from?’ I say, ‘Zimbabwe’. ‘Well, we are not about to be attacked by that small country. You can stay in the meeting.’ ‘How rich?’ I quietly ponder to myself. ‘As if you have a choice! These are my ideas we seek to apply to UMVs and the Mars Rover. Without me, there would be no meeting.
‘In any case, how do you know that my loyalty does not lie with the Chinese or the Russians?’ Well, well, that is how it is. White supremacy always wants you to feel that it is doing you a favour, even when you are the one holding all the chips.
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.