Ideally, the Second Republic heartens us to close ranks and focus on ways to prosper the country. But then what does one do when someone with a sordid past like Wilf Mbanga starts prancing about like the prince of perspicacity, the “Owl of Athena”?
What does one do when someone like Mbanga, with such an ignoble past, attempts to damper any optimism that Zimbabweans have about the future of their country?
Indeed, what do you do when someone whose family has a long history of being anti-black, including having invidious ties with the Rhodesian intelligence, attempts to sanitise that history by masquerading as the paragon of virtue?
Mbanga is a veteran journalist, probably my own father’s age mate. However, his characterisation of Zimbabwe belies the wisdom he ought to have harnessed from the university of life.
One would have expected Mbanga to have outgrown his own bigotry and present an objective reality of his native land. But alas, the leopard never changes its spots.
In his “Letter from Africa” published by the BBC almost two weeks ago titled, “Zimbabwe’s ‘enemy of the people’ returns”, Mbanga inadvertently exposed himself as most people have known him – a diehard “house nigger”.
Mbanga’s article, which was robustly debated by journalists on social media, was to say the least, a pack of innuendos, invectives, stereotypes and hyperbolic.
In a very condescending tone, Mbanga writes: “My mouth was as dry as the dusty veld outside. I was expecting Government agents to pounce at any moment, as the state-owned Herald newspaper and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation had reported two warrants for my arrest during my absence. But absolutely nothing happened.”
It must have been painful for a man who has lived his entire life trying to convince everyone who cared to listen that bequeathing a country to blacks was the worst mistake that colonial Britain ever made. It must surely have been one of the most painful experiences for Mbanga returning to a country he wished would never happen.
I am a keen student of literature and the beauty of literature is that it equips one with the necessary lenses to critically examine any work of fiction, including embedded messages and the ultimate vision of the author.
Mbanga waxed lyrical about being branded the “enemy of the people” by the previous regime after writing an article in a Dutch newspaper. He also claims to have been very close to Mr Mugabe and at times played Jim Reeves together.
It is not my wish to dispute Mbanga’s supposed closeness to Mugabe, but anyone reading between the lines won’t fail to see that the man suffers from delusions of grandeur.
Even Mugabe at his weakest wits would never imagine himself being threatened by an article published in a foreign publication to the extent of branding the author an “enemy of the people”.
Who in his sane mind would declare an old man past his sell-by date an “enemy of the people,” especially one with a history of collaboration with Rhodesian authorities that used to send fellow black citizens to the gallows?
Mbanga’s attempt to refashion himself as some kind of national resistance symbol is ridiculous and laughable.
We could have forgiven Mbanga for wanting to elevate himself to some kind of anti-establishment symbol. Old people are prone to such folly of exaggerating their exploits. But we can’t honestly forgive him for infusing the same sterile words used by white colonialists in describing an alien African landscape.
His re-encounter with an African landscape after 15 years in “exile” is, to say the least, patronising. He presents what he encounters as some once beautiful, savage landscape that’s being debased.
In a very cynical tone, Mbanga claims seeing the “dry, dusty countryside” as the plane descended. I am not sure which “dry, dusty countryside” Mbanga was seeing, but to be able to see the “dusty” part of the landscape high up in the sky should have been a nauseating experience for him.
But there is something disturbing about this sort of description. It is analogous to the same diction one encounters as he/she reads early European writings and travelogues. It was through travelogues that Europeans made images of distant colonial settings available to larger audiences back home.
While such work rapidly expanded knowledge about remote regions, it was frequently riddled with stereotypes and assumptions that classified societies according to Eurocentric hierarchies.
This negative portrayal of colonised populations was crucial in spurring their subjugation as narratives of backwardness were essential elements in justifying colonial conquest.
Even Doris Lessing, the celebrated Nobel Prize winner, could not escape her own prejudices as she penned “The Grass is Singing.” Anyone who has read “The Grass is Singing” by Lessing and “The Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad will testify to the rampant use of the word “dry” to describe an unfamiliar alien, African landscape.
Mary, the wife of Dick, could not bear the “dry, hot and inhospitable landscape” and slides into dementia.
Similarly, Marlow in “The Heart of Darkness” is repulsed by the Congo he encounters, describing the maddening touch of wilderness on Kurtz as the manifestation of the darkness.
Both Lessing and Conrad can be forgiven for their use of stereotypes.
In the case of Conrad, he must have been under pressure to feed the people back home with a narrative that confirmed their own biases. But we can’t forgive Mbanga for appropriating the same stereotypes. The man concedes that he came to Zimbabwe on a British passport and, therefore, had to pay $50 for a tourist visa.
Everything begins to make sense when in both literal and metaphorical sense, Mbanga tells the reader that he was essentially a tourist in his native land. In other words, his attitude towards his own native land is voyeuristic with an apparent “colonial gaze”.
While grudgingly acknowledging the slick airport road, Mbanga immediately juxtaposes the refurbished road with “everything looking dingy, tired and in desperate need of a lick of paint.” I have used the airport road several times and I am still struggling to locate this “dinginess” on houses alongside it.
Mbanga disparages any positive sentiments a visitor might have about developments in the country by stating that: “On the drive home from the airport, the first part of the new dual carriageway had just been completed and was beautiful. But the houses that lined it were shabby and dilapidated. The only bright colours to be seen were on the remaining Zanu-PF election campaign billboards and the beautiful Spring flowering trees.”
Mbanga’s “colonial gaze” is disturbing in that it reinforces the man’s failure to outgrow his inherent disdain for the African leadership that came with majority rule.
Mbanga’s family – his parents and brothers – were non-believers in the cause of black emancipation. I will return to this invidious family history later. For now let’s focus on his disturbing “colonial gaze”.
E Ann Kaplan defines a “colonial gaze” as an interpretive way of looking at “other” people in which the observed is defined by the privileged observer’s own set of value-preferences.
Mbanga assumes a privileged position of a colonial literally leering down on his unrefined and undeveloped subjects.
Such a gaze trivialises what it falls upon, asserting its command and ordering function as it does so. Perhaps the most influential and widely read post-colonial critic who can help readers in understanding the gist of Mbanga’s article is Edward Said, a Palestinian intellectual who was born in Jerusalem and died in exile in America in 2003. He advanced the idea of an “Oriental” (people from the East) perfidy that says that there is need for backward peoples to be rescued by democracy. Mbanga’s piece caricatures everything he encounters, including his relatives. There is a tinge of superficiality in how he describes his relatives.
One can feel the aloofness and the derision he feels when he looks at his relatives that he left and now have grandchildren.
Essentially, Mbanga, who’s married to a white woman Trish, creates a landscape which he is incapable of inhabiting.
It is clear that his audience is the Empire. The Empire still has an appetite for such literature that confirms their superiority complex. Nyarota illuminates a bit about Mbanga’s family in his book “Against the Grain – Memoirs of Zimbabwean Newsman”, in which he writes that Mbanga came from a family of policemen- mabhurakwacha. His father was a detective sub inspector with the British South Africa Police, while two of his brothers were senior officers in the Zimbabwe Republic Police.
Indeed, Mbanga’s parents were in the Rhodesian government’s police intelligence division, the Special Branch.
In an interview in 2008, Special Branch JOC officer Dan Standard makes interesting revelations about the Mbanga family and its history of collaboration.
When asked if there had been a tradition of sons working for the BSAP because of their fathers or older relatives, Standard’s response was: “That happened on many occasions, Wilf Mbanga for a start: his family, his brothers, were all in CID, Special Branch with me and his uncle was a fantastic bloke. He was a senior warrant officer in CID in Umtali when I was there and he had a brother who was later OC, CID and very strong police background, so yes from that point of view there were families that traditionally carried on and joined the police . . . ”
An anecdotal family detail is also useful here. Wilf Mbanga’s brother, Chris, is also married to a white woman. I hope before his death, Wilf Mbanga will be able to exorcise that alien spirit that makes him see his country and fellow countrymen as perpetual zombies lacking a sense of agency.