Walter Mzembi was the last Foreign Affairs minister to serve under former president Robert Mugabe.
Although his tenure was brief, for it was during his stint that the Mugabe’s regime fell, it was an event-packed period that has not been recorded.
Daily News News Editor Gift Phiri had an opportunity to hear these events from the horse’s mouth. Below are excerpts of the interview:
Q: Where were you when the military tanks rolled into Harare? What was your reaction?
A: Before I respond to your questions, let me hasten to say the “first casualty of conflict is truth”. I am hoping this interview can lay to rest the many falsehoods and fake news that have been generated and disseminated around my name and whereabouts in the most recent past, amounting to hate speech! Thank you for the opportunity to set the record straight. Now back to your first question, we were of course in bed at that wee hour but had been kept wide awake by anxiety over the statement by the military and its implications and also queries from the region on what was going on, remember on the night in question
I had missed a flight to South Africa, where I had been granted an appointment with the South African Foreign Affairs minister in Pretoria in the morning of the 15th and later a meeting with President (Jacob) Zuma at 6pm in Cape Town as part of my regional diplomatic tour but also as the ex-president’s special envoy.
I had just completed a similar assignment in Zambia the previous day, where I had met both the Foreign Affairs minister and President Lungu. So my colleagues in the region were equally anxious. As to our reaction as a family, we stayed on, and only moved into a hotel around 6am, as we were now responding to various messages on the insecurity of Cabinet ministers getting to us from various sources.
Q: Some people suggest you took sanctuary in the Cuban Embassy. Is this correct?
A: We never were visited by the military contrary to falsehoods peddled by social media, and some of my colleagues in government who have been authoritatively peddling lies about my whereabouts and supposed fugitive status. I never left Zimbabwe nor sought sanctuary anywhere including the Cuban Embassy as asserted by some. My immigration and passport records can confirm this, including checking with the said embassies that are clearly irritated by these falsehoods. It’s just malice!
Q: So where did you go?
A: I went to a hotel, and after two days was back at my residence.
Q: Why do you think you were expelled from Zanu PF?
A: Retaliatory action from my colleagues. Remember we were clearly split into two factions. The one with the upper hand expels the other! Those expelling others had been expelled the previous week or so, some childish game of sorts hence the intervention by the military who are stockholders of this party.
Q: In hindsight do you think you did the right thing ?
A: None of us is more righteous than the other, I hope one day there can be an honest stocktaking of actions, and a genuine attempt to heal the party. We have no other home outside Zanu PF, so expelling individuals is not the solution for a mature party such as Zanu PF. You sit down in the true spirit of “Operation Restore Legacy” , and examine the conflict points including generational and ideological misunderstandings and mend the fences, not just physically but mentally.
Q: What do you make of the process used to oust the president?
A: It was unfortunate, what started as a struggle within a struggle of a liberation movement was hijacked by civil society and others and we were unable on our own to sort things out without inviting other interests. Now they talk of going for the kill, and here they refer to Zanu PF, we have to pause and sort things on our own going forward, and “clearly an eye for an eye left the world blind”. This is my cautionary statement to the party.
Q: Do you believe the ex-president was ousted through a coup? Some are calling it a democratic military coup, which seems like an oxymoron.
A: He denied it himself that it was a coup and instructed me in the diplomatic solution I was championing to communicate that to Sadc. Our courts also adjudged that it wasn’t a coup. So it wasn’t a coup but a military arbitration in a party in which the military are stockholders. Don’t look for it anywhere, nor try it elsewhere, you will not find a precedent. It was made in Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans.
Q: You were suspected of being a member of the so-called G40. Is it a correct assertion?
A: No I wasn’t a member of G40 as you know it or as it’s characterised now. I spent my last two years detached from local politics until after the UNWTO General Assembly in Chengndu, China this last September. So my drama in local politics is two months old, with the results you know now.
Q: Do you buy the argument that the ex-first lady had usurped the authority of the ex-president and there were plans afoot to impose a dynasty?
A: That can only be answered by the former president himself.
Q: Have you spoken to the ex-president or former first lady after November the 21st?
Q: Your expulsion also deprived you of a Cabinet post. You have since been replaced by your predecessor who has become your successor. Your comment?
A: No deployment is permanent. The president must be allowed space to choose his own Foreign minister, it’s his prerogative! And we serve at his pleasure. It’s a very sensitive portfolio, requiring absolute trust, and when you are in there you are the last in terms of loyalty to ship out hence my hanging on until “D” Day. I am sure even the new president respects and admires my loyalty, he needs a lot more principled people around him, that’s my prayer.
Q: Would you accept a Cabinet post in President Mnangagwa’s administration?
A: Am I ready to work and contribute in any capacity including as a private citizen? So the answer is yes, that notwithstanding Zimbabwe needs all hands on the deck private and public and it should not just be about Cabinet posts, there are people who have been contributing to the well being of Zimbabwe beyond measure as Private Citizens, in business, academia, religion etc. There is life beyond these deployments, so I will lend my absolute support regardless of nomination for Cabinet and in whatever role.
Q: You have interacted in Cabinet with the new President, what type of man is he?
A: Pragmatic, shrewd and maybe reserved bordering on aloofness, but he certainly has bottled up ideas and refreshing thoughts that are only coming out now, which is natural for an astute politician who was reserving his best for future use and avoiding policy clashes!
Q: Do you think he will revive this shrinking economy?
A: He will lead the revival of the economy only to the extent that we all support him. He has said all the right things so far and is on track. He is carrying the cross as our leader but he needs all of us to achieve his vision and mission for a prosperous Zimbabwe.
Q: Zanu PF has recalled five MPs. Are you confident of retaining your seat?
A: I am ready to surrender my seat if it unites the party more going forward provided its done procedurally. An election is in the horizon and I am not sure what is served by taking away my seat from the electors in Masvingo South Constituency purely out of a decision of a central committee that may be completely disconnected to grassroots feelings on the same. They just sit here in Harare and decide for the people without consulting them.
Q: You went to the National Assembly on Wednesday, and reports suggest you shook hands with the new First Lady. Why did you do that?
A: She is the first lady of Zimbabwe and the shadow of the president inside the House of Assembly. Secondly, circumstances had not permitted me to pay my respects and courtesies nor attend the inauguration ceremony, so it was the cultural and normal thing to do. I am still on standby to extend my congratulations to the president himself too.
Q: Are you pursuing a future in politics?
A: President Mnangagwa was an avid supporter of my UNWTO Campaign, politics cannot only be constituency representative and/ or Executive deployment, both of which I am reconsidering going forward. I am yet to meet my constituency to sound them out on this, but if it’s not Zanu PF representation as predicated by my expulsion from the party, it’s time for a sabbatical. I will lend my support to any Zanu PF cadre nominated by the Party and I hope they can support me in my private life trajectory as well.
Q: There were claims by some war veterans that during the talks between H.E and the generals you acted as the ex-president’s special envoy ostensibly to mobilise regional support for him to dig in. What happened?
A: No, quite to the contrary the traditional itinerary of a new Foreign minister kicks off with regional courtesy calls, starting with Sadc and its dean who happens to be minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane of South Africa, then it follows the hierarchy of the Sadc Troika which was very relevant at the time, Angola as chair, Zambia, vice chair and Tanzania. The special envoy status is a coveted one, because it allows the visiting minister to engage the host president and share his foreign policy thrust at the highest level in addition to any message one may be delivering at the time from the Head of State.
It’s time for a political sabbatical, says Mzembi. So you are not privy to the contents of the special message but should be ready to appraise the host president of issues that may be prompted by him during interaction. So my diplomatic tour was overtaken by events and ostensibly even the special messages because I never embarked on the rest of the tour after Zambia.
Q: You visited Zambia during that interregnum, what was the purpose of your visit?
A: Same objectives as alluded to already, but I came back from Zambia on the evening of the 13th of November, and the mix up of my whereabouts kicked off from there, notwithstanding the fact that I attended the Cabinet session of November 14. Even the reassurance message given to President Lungu that all was well was also overtaken by events thereafter.
There was a very naughty string of fake news that sought to bring the integrity of our meeting and President Lungu’s position on Zimbabwe into disrepute. I am glad he shamed the purveyors of these falsehoods by bringing a high powered delegation of three presidents to the inauguration, two of them past Presidents. It was the highest expression of endorsement of President Mnangagwa seen in Zambia as their son too because of shared family links dating back to the liberation struggle. As vice president, he was recently the guest of honour to the class of 1975 law school celebrations , which he was part of at UNZA.
Q: President Lungu later despatched ex-president Kaunda to Harare to lean on the old man. Were you involved in that shuttle diplomacy?
A: We were pleasantly interrupted from a lengthy conversation with former president Mugabe when President Kaunda telephoned announcing his arrival , and he just exclaimed “Oh KK “, and indicated he would call me back. Of course, I was constantly in touch with both the Foreign Affairs minister and President Lungu. It was their own decision. On my earlier visit I had sought to see ex-president Kaunda which I have done before regardless of deployment, because he is my mentor having been partly educated in Zambia myself too. In 2015, he was the Guest of Honour at my firstborn son Komba’s wedding in Lusaka.
Q: To what extent where you involved in the talks?
A: I was in the loop on the Sadc diplomatic solution, and the point person with regards to communication with ex-president Mugabe and the region, and would consult him frequently on direction and vice versa. This in hindsight seemed disconnected to the local mediation effort. The diplomatic solution to be communicated by presidents Zuma and Lourenco of Angola was to deliver the same outcome as the people have now in President Mnangagwa except that it was a sequential one, starting with our Congress endorsing him for presidency of the party in December, and reappointment to vice president in government and then president Mugabe hand holding him to elections in 2018.
It was a solution in the interest of healing relations between the two of them and inside the party which has been raven by expulsions and counter expulsions. The mediators are presiding over sister liberation movements and had no interest in an implosion of Zanu PF, contrary to the indifference which was coming from civil society and other political parties who were assisting the demise of our party in the name of the “Mugabe must go” mantra . .There is contagion effect on the Region if one of liberation parties is under siege.
Q: When did you sign off as Foreign minister. There are claims you stood with Mugabe, to the end until he capitulated, why and how?
A: Given the diplomatic networking role not known to many, I am sure you appreciate the need for my professional conduct at the time, and why it was necessary to abstain from processes that were taking place in the party and in Parliament, they would have clearly conflicted my role in this whole saga. I chose to stand on principle and the rest is history. All this coordination and mediation work with Sadc happened from my home office, not the Cuban Embassy or any other country as shared at press conferences by comrades who were trying to cash in on my whereabouts and perceived demise for their own sinister interests.
I played my anticipated diplomatic role diligently to the end and I do not feel it was an exercise in circumventing a people’s will at all. I go honourably with my head high after 10 years of illustrious service and dedication to my country, and president and I have no regrets in being the last man standing. I was observing my oath of loyalty consistent with the seniority of the office I was holding.
Q: Your final word?
A: Hail the new President, His Excellency Cde ED Mnangagwa! It is time to move on for everyone, time for healing, for forgiveness, time to love, to smile, to laugh , time to live. As in 1980, let’s turn our swords into ploughshares. Let bygones be bygones!