April 14, 2003

Masipula Sithole

Masipula Sithole died unexpectedly April 4th.

One of the major changes in my life in the past decade has been a growing willingness to simply regard the defective character and moral vision of some African leaders—most notably Robert Mugabe—as a major cause of postcolonial African nations’ problems. To be sure, it’s not quite that simple. Even venality, megalomania and cruelty are not simple things to explain or understand.

As my willingness to attribute at least some suffering to bad leadership—or even just bad moral character—my admiration for individuals who stood outside of the prevailing structures and failures and courageously reached for something else, something better, rose accordingly. Masipula Sithole was one of those Zimbabweans, a person who could have simply kept his head down and gone about his business (despite the fact that his brother Ndabaningi was so infamous in the late 20th Century political history of the country).

Mas did not keep his head down. Nor did he settle for mere political opposition, the kind that simply strives to replace one set of postcolonial autocrats for another. He stood for something else: a free civil society, a liberal society, for the values and ideas and honesty that are the precondition of meaningful democracy. As Fahreed Zakaria has observed, elections do not make democracy. Opposition parties do not make democracy. Liberalism as a system of values and internal commitments makes democracy.

People like Masipula Sithole make democracy. Mas wrote a popular opinion column which he used to criticize the Mugabe regime, but not as a rigidly ideological critic. He spoke truth to power, and truth to Zimbabweans, about who they are and whom they might want to be. He asked Zimbabweans if it really was true that they were “sons of the soil”. He asked Zimbabweans what kind of country they really wanted. He used wit, persuasion and patience.

He dared to dream. When I first met him here at Swarthmore, where his son Chandiwana Sithole was one of my favorite students, he gave a talk about the possibility of a “United States of Southern Africa”. It seemed hopeless, impossible, impractical, unlikely. It still does. It was a lovely dream, though, at a time when no one dreams about Africa, or when they do, they dream mean little insincere and Machiavellian dreams dressed up in glorious rhetoric about an “African renaissance”.

I hope Zimbabweans of good will can hold on to his dreams, and all the dreams like them, hold on to his intellectual and political legacy, hold on to the desperate thought that the future might be better than the tragic present. Mas left us all too soon, and we now can only clutch desperately onto the many gifts he gave so generously, gifts of time and thought and insight.