Daniel Munkombwe defies categorization. He has been called a radical, lion or even someone “from the archives”. Whatever name you may choose to call him, he is a man of all seasons. He has worked with both the UNIP and MMD governments, and now at 81, people may have thought there might be no role for him in modern politics. They were wrong. His nomination as Member of Parliament and subsequent appointed as Southern Province Minister by President Michael Sata, proved him to be a “roof compound” as he puts it himself.
“If there is a patch which I can patch,” he says with a sudden cheer on his face. “If I can be a stabilizing force, if I can be glue… anyhow, I am saying if I can be roof compound, if I can seal any leaking hole, why should I say no?”
This was Mr. Munkombwe’s reaction when the B & R asked him whether he was ready to take up a position in the Patriotic Front (PF) government when called upon. Some observers believe he is being rewarded for assisting the PF win the Livingstone parliamentary bye election, and they say Mr. Munkombwe has mastered the art of Zambian politics and knows what to say at a particular time to attract attention from appointing authorities.
Indeed there may be some truth in this as he has often openly suggested that politics is about personal benefits. But this man has a unique character that has endeared him to Zambia’s leaders. He points to his 2 children who sit next to him during the interview saying: “I think these will one day describe me as a father who never feared anything. Physically, I’m a lion – they call me munyama, an animal. If I lose my heart, I am an animal but generous person – big heart to look after people.”
Mr Munkombwe’s candid character has earned him enemies and friends alike, and it is this kind of temperament that has seen him rise and fall at the hands of different political regimes in Zambia. In fact, during this interview at his Kabebya Farm in Choma, Mr. Munkombwe did not hesitate to deliver a withering rebuke to people who support regional politics. In an obvious reference to the United Party for National Development (UPND) leader, Hakainde Hichilema, he said there is a price to pay for such politicians.
“If you’re a regional leader you don’t go to State House,” he explained while taking long pauses in between statements as if ready to pounce. “That’s a price. So you will continue putting people into a warmer. In 2001, you lose, you put them into a warmer and they agree. Then in 2006, you lose again, you also put them into a warmer, they will continue.”
He added that in politics you have to join people who are able to rule. He said this while recounting his own experience when he was in the African National Congress (ANC), led by late Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula, and which controlled southern and central Zambia.
“In Tonga, we have a saying which says “mukali uzwa mubunji” (a tough person comes from among the many). When Vernon Mwaanga, Elijah Mudenda and Mainza Chona joined UNIP, we thought they were mad. He added: “so if you want to be regional parties continue forever, but you will be a permanent member of the opposition.”
The former freedom fighter described the privilege of serving in all the governments as a cherished memory of a lifetime, adding: “… a person useful anywhere can be useful everywhere and I think that is what I am. I’m useful everywhere.”
Mr. Munkombwe has served in all governments since independence. Asked what he thinks about Zambia’s former presidents. He refused to dwell on negatives saying: “They were able to use me fully. Kenneth Kaunda is a fantastic man, an upright man; we had a very excellent working relationship. Chiluba was an eloquent man, equally straight forward. Mwanawasa was a legalistic man; he wanted to do everything to the perfect arm of the law.”
With a bit of hesitation, this is what he said about Mr. Rupiah Banda: “Banda aaah, he is a very difficult man to describe but I think, eeeh, as a minister under Rupiah Banda’s administration, he also allowed me to work freely.”
Some of the portfolios Mr Munkombwe has held in government include Minister of State from 1983 – 1987, Minister of Decentralisation from 1987 to 1991 and Member of the Central Committee in the UNIP government. He served as MMD Southern Province Minister and Deputy Minister in the Office of the Vice President during the Levy Mwanawasa and Rupiah Banda administrations between 2007 and 2010 respectively.
Mr. Munkombwe was born on 16th May 1932 in Mbole Village of Chief Maacha from a peasant family. His father, Phillip Chibbwalu Moono, was one of the early students of Sikalongo Mission when it was established in 1916 and his mother was Mankuche Mwaanga of Chief Singani’s royal family. The veteran politician says his father was recruited as a soldier and ended up being Regiment Sergeant Major, “the highest position held by an African at the time” and fought in the “British war” (Second World War) of 1939 to 1945. When his father went to war, he together with his siblings were taken to Chief Macha’s Village were his father’s young sister was married. There he got involved in heading cattle – a move that delayed his education. He started school in 1945 when he was 13 years old.
“I went to school at Macha Central, Muyanda, Sikalongo Mission and Matopo Secondary (Zimbabwe) for my standard 7 and 8 that time. And I came back in December 1954 to live with my uncle late Samson Simakulika Mwaanga, Vernon Mwaanga’s father,” he narrated.
On whether he is disappointed that he had to start his education when he was already old, he responds cheekily that he is a “beneficiary of child labour.” His stern background has given him the personal discipline to persevere in life he says, and it has also given him a streak of stubbornness. For example, his first attempt to work in government lasted for one and a half-day.
“When I came in to Kalomo, there was an English student who was at Oxford University doing his research. When I came with letters from his senior, he greeted me by saying good afternoon my boy, that word is derogatory,” he said. “I am a temperamental man, so I folded the letter and through it in his face. I said you can keep your job, I am going.”
Mr Munkombwe started his political career as a freedom fighter under the ANC in the 1950s. In 1956, he was elected ANC Livingstone District secretary and the following year he helped organize the boycott of shops as a protest against those whites who were forcing Africans to buy items through the window. These protests angered the British colonial government and Mr. Munkombwe and his friends who included Amon Lungu, Isaac Kanyerere and others ended up being arrested by the British colonial government.
His early political carrier also saw him elected ANC provincial vice president and in 1962, he became provincial chairman, making him a key ally of Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula.
Mr. Munkombwe’s love for football has seen him sponsor football teams such as Choma United and currently funds Kabebya United, a former division one outfit. He also helped found the Chipolopolo soccer fans association, the organization he served as its chairman along with former president Rupiah Banda who was his deputy.
Each time he has moved, Mr Munkombwe has fashioned himself as a reformist. With his new appointment, Mr Munkombwe believes, he will be on the political scene even up to 90, “if the Lord continues to keep me in good health.”
The veteran politician says he has known president Sata for a long time and is already charmed by what the PF government is trying to achieve for the people of Zambia.
“I think Michael Sata, to be precise is trying to revive what Kaunda was trying to achieve by taking back ZAMTEL. Taking Railway Systems back to Zambia Railways and also looking for old people who are still able to work like Daniel Munkombwe. That is reviving Dr. Kaunda’s non-tribal approach to politics. That is what I mean by reviving Dr. Kaunda’s dreams. ”
He further explained that this does not mean to say he is advocating for the return of the one party state and abolishment of the free market economy saying it was the best at the time.
“You see if Dr. Kaunda in 1964 adopted a free market system, he would have been abandoned by investors… that was the best way for that period, consolidation of the economy, providing free education which is anti-capitalism. He had to find a formula of getting money to provide free education. That is not possible under a free (market) economy.”
Mr Munkombwe is convinced that under the PF government, Zambia is headed for great things adding that “we are going to heaven.”
“We are going the right way. Those who preach doom will be very embarrassed. We have already achieved most of them (the PF promises). First of all, the roads are being worked on and those that haven’t been worked on will be worked on soon. I think Michael Sata is going the right way.”
In conclusion he says: “I want to die a politician that is admirable, a politician that is likeable. Of course you can’t be liked by everybody; you can’t be liked by your perceived opponents. It’s not possible!”
See story in the June edition of the Bulletin and Record Magazine