One Zambia One Kandolo: Mwanawasa, Cabbages and the Politics of Insults
E. Munshya, LLB (Hons), MA, MDiv.
President Levy Mwanawasa (Zambian President from 2002 to 2008) was a controversial figure. Without doubt he has gone into history as one of the most contentious presidents. Several things about Mwanawasa are contentious. Just how he was called from political retirement to become Chiluba’s preferred MMD presidential candidate ruffled a lot of feathers within the MMD in 2001. Legend has it that Mwanawasa was actually woken up from sleep to go and accept his candidacy at an MMD meeting at State House. Without effort, Levy would be king. Chiluba had famously dribbled several people in the MMD to push the Mwanawasa candidacy through. Ironically, one of those dribbled candidates was a potent MMD Secretary known as Michael Chilufya Sata. Ten years later, this MMD strongman is now president of the republic. For some reason, he has decided to dissociate himself from the MMD he served and led. But we will leave that mboholi for another day.
Mwanawasa also proved to be contentious by the way he won the 2001 elections. Held during the December holiday season, the 2001 elections were contested by a record eleven candidates including Michael Sata, Nevers Mumba and Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika. What made the 2001 electoral result even more bizarre was how Mwanawasa beat Anderson Mazoka, by a single percentage point. Some political observers claim that Mwanawasa’s victory was stolen right from Mazoka’s nose. We, of course, do not have any evidence for all these allegations. For their part, the Supreme Court exonerated Mwanawasa from any electoral malpractice in the 2001 electoral petition.
Mwanawasa was also controversial in the way he chose to prosecute and with it persecute his own benefactor President Chiluba and his close collaborators. There was no one who escaped Mwanawasa’s wrath. Beginning from Chiluba’s political collaborators such as Michael Sata to civil servants such as State House senior staff, Mwanawasa made sure that they all faced police cells. Sata’s alleged crime was theft of a motor vehicle. This was a non-bailable crime at that time. For Chiluba himself, it was theft of about half a million dollars. Had Mwanawasa had the way, he would have probably locked up some people for being like kandolo.
With all these controversies, however, there is something for which we should all commend Mwanawasa. The way he handled, perhaps, the most vicious of insults any person can ever face: his mental wellbeing. Shortly after the 1991 elections, Mwanawasa was involved in a very nasty accident where he almost died. He was hospitalized in South Africa for many months. His own recovery was nothing short of a miracle. According to biographer Amos Malupenga, some of Mwanawasa’s closest associates and even Levy himself did link this accident with his short-temperedness and slurred speech. In his own home, Mwanawasa had a nickname: the tiger. His children and his wife learnt over the years how to handle his temper.
The most vicious of insults, however, concerned the idea that Mwanawasa was a cabbage. The term cabbage meant that Levy had basically been so affected by the 1991 accident as to leave him without normal human faculties. He had basically become a vegetable – a cabbage. The idea that Levy was a useless cabbage became the punchline for opposition Zambian leaders. In one of the many protests against Mwanawasa, protesters would be seen hoisting cabbages in the air, sending a clear insult to Levy that he was but a vegetable. In fact, opposition leaders Edith Nawakwi and Dipak Patel even faced a brief prosecution over the “cabbage” remarks. No doubt, calling Levy Mwanawasa a cabbage was an insult. And as such, the law that proscribes presidential defamation covered it.
The way Mwanawasa handled this cabbage episode, however, teaches us a few lessons in leadership and indeed in the way leaders should handle insults. Before political leaders resort to using the courts or the police to resolve issues of insults, it would be better for them to have recourse to some specific tools that could counteract those insults. Mwanawasa had a choice. He could have started to arrest all the people who called him a cabbage. He could have banned cabbages too. Additionally, he could have sent soldiers to arrest UNZA students who frequently hoisted cabbages when protesting. Instead of reacting in retribution, this is how Mwanawasa handled the insult. He simply rebutted it by claiming quite famously that:
“I am not a cabbage, I am a piece of steak”.
With these few but powerful words, Mwanawasa added hilarity to a very difficult insult. He knew that he could not fight all the people calling him a cabbage. It would be difficult to do a tit-for-tat with everyone bent on annoying him. And he realized that he had a choice in the matter. And that choice was humor. When you react to insult with humour you pre-empt the enemy’s venom. From Mwanawasa we learn that even a cabbage can survive the Cobra’s venom by using laughter. From Mwanawasa we learn that while a cobra’s venom cannot hurt a cabbage, humour can transform a cobra into a potato. It may take a few years, but certainly the time always comes when a cobra suddenly becomes a sweet potato. And it appears in all probability that going by what BBC and AP had reported on Tuesday, there was a serious issue of “Kachamba” happening in Kasama this week.
There is a saying in Bemba, which states that “imfumu taituka bantu, abantu ebatuka imfumu”. This can be loosely translated: a leader should be able to tolerate insults from those he is leading. This wit was widely used by President Chiluba (1991-2001) to divert criticism and insults from various political opponents. President Levy Mwanawasa also used the same wisdom to tolerate the deplorable insults coming from various opposition leaders. The pain of being likened to a cabbage was what people in the nation could do against Mwanawasa, but he knew that he had to react better since he was president of the republic. Tolerance is important for several reasons.
First, it helps a leader to focus on providing leadership instead of focusing on useless and unproductive battles. A leader has a lot issues weighing heavily on her. These things include umutengo wa bunga, a people driven constitution and lack of nurses at UTH. And so to give due attention to these worthy causes, it is necessary that a leader be not moved by petty and senseless squabbles. Second, tolerance is important because it helps to foster an atmosphere of democratic liberty. Zambians should have the liberty to both state and miss-state Lozi language sayings such as Ngulu Musholi, a deliberate adulteration of a Bemba saying Chumbu Munshololwa. Indeed, after Bembas have been robed of the opportunity to choose their own Sosala as Chief Chitimukulu, no one should limit their liberty to use their expression connected to Kandolo.
If we are to learn anything from Mwanawasa, it is the way he handled this cabbage insult. I just hope that from him we can all learn to be more tolerant and allow Chingovwa to be what it is: a good delicacy that does not bend. But if it were Mwanawasa we called Mboholi, he was going to tell us in no uncertain terms, “I am not Chimbwali, I am a piece of steak”. And it is this humour that Zambia lacks today: One Zambia, One Kandolo.