NEARLY two decades on, today Zimbabwe remembers the late Vice President, Dr Simon Vengesai Muzenda, a true symbol of nationalism and a man who became a mediator between the young and old, rich and poor.

Many still remember him for his huge dose of humour, humility and steadfastness that propelled him to become an epitome of happiness and peace in the country.

Born on October 28, 1922, to a family of peasant farmers in Headman Ndawi’s area in Gutu at the height of British rule, the late Dr Mzee, as he was affectionately known, died on September 20, 2003, at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals in Harare.

He was brought up by his maternal grandmother who valued education so much that she ensured he would regularly attend a local school, Nyamandi Primary School, while herding the family’s cattle after school.

An academically gifted child, Cde Muzenda was seconded for teacher training after attaining Standard Six but acting on the advice of his tutor he travelled to South Africa’s Marianhill Mission in the Natal Province where he trained as a carpentry teacher.

At the college, the late Dr Mzee developed political awareness from his alliance with fellow students that included several men who became prominent in the black activism in the then apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia.

In 1950, he returned home and started working in a furniture factory in Bulawayo.

The late Vice President became involved in politics with the late Benjamin Burombo, one of the first black activists to challenge Smith’s repressive and discriminative laws.

In 1955, the late Dr Mzee, who was now married to a nurse, the late Mbuya Maud, moved to Mvuma where he embarked on his own carpentry business while continuing his political activism until he became administrative secretary of Zimbabwe African National Union.

This attracted the ire of the Rhodesian security police which saw him being incarcerated at the then Salisbury (now Harare) Central Prison.

The late Dr Mzee is said to have described the prison cell as “a place of study” as he and other inmates embarked on their studies.

He was briefly released in 1964 before being incarcerated for being found in possession of a firearm — a pistol.

He had been elected the ZANU deputy organising secretary committing to the revolution and was actively involved in organising young blacks to go for military training in Tanzania, Zambia, the then Soviet Union and China.

As fate would have it, he was jailed yet again before being released under the Anglo-Rhodesia agreement in 1971.

To many, Dr Mzee was an enigma, as his humility and down to earth character baffled those who did not quite know him.

He would fit in every situation and would on weekends visit the rural folks in his home area of Zvavahera, attending funeral gatherings and traditional ceremonies.

When home, he always wanted to be referred to as Sekuru Muzenda despite assuming the second-highest leadership position on the land.

Due to his humility, many made fun of him and to date, a great number of Zimbabwe still think that Dr Mzee was not eloquent in English. He was, however, a complete antithesis of what others thought he was.

The man who defied the odds, showing his dedication and commitment towards seizing back the country from the hands of the minority white people.

The late VP Muzenda contributed immensely to the struggle including taking his four children to Mozambique to join other cadres in the liberation struggle.

Having been involved in political activism, chairing crucial meetings and taking part in the Lancaster House Conference in 1979, it is clear that Dr Mzee could communicate in at all levels.

The late Dr Mzee was again not a victim of an identity crisis as he would in most cases relate to his people in Masvingo.

He would speak his language in a hushed voice and was one of a few people who would address any gathering in his native language, Karanga, without diluting it with any English words.

He did not see white people as supreme beings as he advocated for equality and when it came to land, he was resolute and unapologetic.

He had self-belief as a true Zimbabwean and called for the fair distribution of land to the landless blacks arguing that white people had for long deprived native people of their natural resources.

He was so down to earth that in his village of Zvavahera he would remove his Vice President jacket to join villagers in traditional dance.

He would also drink traditional beer from traditional pots (pfuko) drinking with grey-bearded and snuff-sniffing folks in his rural home without any trouble. He was the Soul of the Nation and a pillar of strength in Zanu-PF and the country at large.

When he recited the poem “Nehanda Nyakasikana”, which was penned by the late Professor Solomon Mutsvairo, a lot of people marvelled at his performance.

The story of the independence of Zimbabwe would be incomplete without mentioning Dr Mzee as he was the embodiment of the country’s struggle for independence.

Dr Muzenda and other heroes like President Mnangagwa, Josiah Tongogara, Herbert Chitepo, Dr Joshua Nkomo, Joseph Msika and Robert Mugabe brought Zimbabwe its cherished independence.

There are the leaders who unshackled the country from colonial bondage despite the then Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Douglas Smith’s spirited efforts to thwart any move towards self-rule by the majority black people.

Dr Mzee and his family, including his wife, the late Mbuya Maud and his children, suffered persecution during the colonial days but remained resolute until the country achieved self-rule.

As a remembrance of the splendid work done by the late Dr Mzee and his family in liberating Zimbabwe, Friends of Joshua Nkomo Trust upgraded Muzenda’s family home in Masvingo’s Mucheke Suburb to a heritage site.

Named KwaVaMuzenda Heritage Site, the home, built-in 1896 is now a tourist attraction with different artefacts depicting the life of Dr Mzee, his tribulations during the war of liberation, his trade union activism in Bulawayo and a stint in South Africa where he worked as a carpentry lecturer.

Friends of Joshua Nkomo Trust creative director Rayban Sengwayo said Dr Mzee’s legacy will be cherished forever by Zimbabweans as he brought independence.

He said because of that, the late Vice President deserves to be remembered in a good way, hence coming up with the idea of a heritage site “in honour of the life of a gallant son of the soil”.

The upgrade was done in conjunction with Great Zimbabwe University.

Before her death, during Muzenda Memorial Golf Tournament, Mbuya Maud Muzenda appealed to the city fathers and ZANU PF to have a statue erected in Masvingo City in honour of her late husband.

Villagers and party members in Zvavahera in Gutu have also echoed the same sentiments as they have called for the erection of a statue at Mpandawana Town.

Unlike his contemporaries who had acquired significant wealth and a high social and political standing like him, Dr Muzenda was strikingly simple. Dr Mzee spent most of his free time at his rural home.

He was generous and socially conscious and as such, was a huge benefactor in Masvingo Province as he paid fees for dozens of people, provided clothing, accommodation and comfort for the poor.

He was declared a National Hero and the Government declared three days of mourning as a sign of respect. His remains were interred at the National Heroes’ Acre. Thousands of mourners converged at the national shrine to witness his burial.

In his address at the national shrine during the burial of Dr Muzenda, the late former president Robert Mugabe described his departed comrade-in-arms as “the very pith of our nation, its soul, its guardian, its revolutionary spirit”.

“We grieve at being so orphaned, grieve at the loss of one so important, one whose departure shakes us to the firmament. The man who lies still before us touched the lives of many people, spoke to all age groups and I dare say, is destined to speak to future generations of our nation.”

Condolence messages poured in from all over the world, including Palestine, Malawi, Botswana, United States of America, Mozambique, Zambia and South Africa.

As leaders from friendly countries mourned Dr Mzee, it was the outpouring of grief by members of the public, the beneficiaries of his generous hand that triggered nationwide emotions.

They included widows, orphans and the poor.

Sekuru Muzenda had built houses for more than 20 people in his village and the departure of their Sekuru was hard to contain. When his body was flown to his rural home in Zvavahera, literally every villager was mourning. Although politics was his first love, the luminary also had time for other interests.

At the time of his death, he was the patron of the Zimbabwe Football Association and was a central figure in the hosting of the Gutu Half Marathon, a national event that attracted some of the country’s best marathon runners to his home area every year. — Zimpapers Knowledge Centre.