Photo: Monty Strikes, Harare, 2007
It's a far cry from Notting Hill, but the death of a remarkable man in Zimbabwe this week couldn't pass without comment. I was privileged to have met John Makumbe, aka the White Man from Buhera, and honoured to write an obituary for him:
Professor John Makumbe, who has died aged 63, overcame the stigma of albinism to become a fearless critic of Robert Mugabe and a key figure in Zimbabwe’s civil society.
5:31PM GMT 29 Jan 2013
In May 2003 Zimbabwean police broke up a peaceful meeting of civic and religious leaders at a church in a Harare suburb, beating and arresting those present. One of them was the political science lecturer John Makumbe, who arrived late and was detained as he entered the building.
After three days in jail he was released, and the following morning attended a press conference. “Look at my face” he said cheerfully. It was bruised, battered and swollen. “I am a rainbow nation all in one. Black, white, yellow, red, purple. It is all here.” The response was typical of a man who could find pithy humour in the most trying circumstances.
Throughout Zimbabwe’s long fall into political turmoil, Makumbe remained one of President Mugabe’s and the ruling Zanu-PF party’s most eloquent and implacable foes. He was chairman of the local chapter of the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International and a founder of both the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition and the National Constitutional Assembly, bodies campaigning for democracy and human rights in a land where they were vanishing fast.
Once, briefing a group of Peers during a visit to London, he invited them to visit Zimbabwe to see the situation for themselves. “Won’t we be arrested or deported?” asked one of them. That was the point, Makumbe responded. Despite the risk to his own safety, he never sought sanctuary abroad. “I am a Zimbabwean,” he said. “This is my home. This is where my family is. If I leave, there are still 12 million people here. What about them?”
John Mudiwa Washe Makumbe was born on May 6 1949 in rural Buhera, 140 miles south-east of Salisbury (now Harare), Southern Rhodesia. Seeing that he was an albino, the midwife tried to throttle him at birth, assuming, he later explained, that because of his pale skin his mother must have been having an affair with a white missionary.
Fortunately, his parents were free of the widespread prejudice that albinos were cursed and their condition infectious, and instilled in him the belief that — despite facing a life of being shunned — being an albino should never hold him back. “I had a tough time growing up,” he told an interviewer. “I was insulted, harassed and tortured by my peers at school and during play. But I fought back. When I became a Christian in 1969 I began to forgive all those who tormented me because of my God-given condition.”
When his future wife Virginia accepted his marriage proposal, her mother was initially so distressed that she threatened suicide, and approved of the marriage only after a year. But before she died, she told her son-in-law she was happy she had relented as he was such a valued member of the family. In 1996 Makumbe founded the Zimbabwe Albino Association (ZIMAS), which helped dispel the myths surrounding the condition in Zimbabwe.
By then, following time spent studying in Botswana, Birmingham and Tasmania (the last on a Commonwealth Scholarship), Makumbe was a well-established academic at the University of Zimbabwe and the author of numerous papers on governance and democracy. His initial hopes for Zanu-PF following Independence in 1980 had long been dashed, and he was an early dissenting voice against the regime, working with Margaret Dongo, a former guerrilla and Zanu-PF MP who ended up challenging the Mugabe government.
No matter how sensitive or controversial the story, Makumbe was never afraid to be quoted, but that was not enough for some. Two American television crews told Andrew Meldrum, a journalist then based in Harare, that Makumbe was too unattractive to appear on screen. “Can’t you find somebody else who says the same things but is not so visually challenging for our viewers?” a correspondent asked the shocked Meldrum.
Last November Makumbe announced that he was taking a sabbatical from teaching to stand as a candidate in his home district of Buhera West for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in this year’s parliamentary elections, and was working for the party as a constitutional adviser. “There are various ways of emancipating Zimbabwe from the tyrannical system of government we have endured under Zanu-PF,” he told an interviewer. “You can either make noise from your white castle or you can put on your boots and overalls and fight for the emancipation of the country.”
He is survived by his wife and their three children.
John Makumbe, born May 6 1949, died January 27 2013