While many describe Arthur Mutambara as a political opportunist, others credit him for pioneering student activism but very few will disagree that the garrulous robotics professor has an abundance of wit.
It is little wonder why the former student leader who later became the deputy prime minister in the shaky government of national unity (GNU) had the Southern African Political Economy Series (Sapes) Trust audience eating from his palm during the launch of his book In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream: An Autobiography of Thought Leadership in Harare last Wednesday.
Emerging from the shadow for the first time since making an unceremonious exit from the grand political stage, many expected him to give his opinion on the political state of the country.
But he skirted the topic, choosing to see the lighter side of the factional, succession and tribal wars devouring the former liberation movement.
“Some of you will ask me what do you think of Lacoste? What do you think of G40? All I can say is that I supervised (Emmerson) Mnangagwa and I supervised (Sydney) Sekeramayi, so I can do a seminar here and tell you if they are able to be president. I have very good insights in terms of their abilities,” he said.
“…don’t tell me you are Lacoste you love Mugabe, don’t tell me you are G40 you love Mugabe, you don’t.
“If you love him help to do an autobiography…Mugabe is the most interesting person in Zimbabwe – remember I said interesting not important…but this book is not being written because G40 insists he should run in election next year, shame on you!…we should have a book not an election.”
Mutambara gave a few highlights into his see-saw relationship with Mugabe during his time as a student leader.
Mugabe was later accused of shielding Mutambara from being stripped of power in the GNU amid increased pressure from the courts and regional bodies to strip him of the position.
On Wednesday, Mutambara took time to pay tribute to former Zanu-PF politburo member Rugare Gumbo, who was instrumental in helping him secure a Rhodes Scholarship in 1991, recommending him as one of the brightest young minds in the country who was destined to be a future leader.
“I would not be a Rhodes scholar without Rugare Gumbo,” Mutambara said.
The Rhodes Scholarship educated him at Merton College, Oxford in the United Kingdom where he obtained a DPhil in Robotics and Mechatronics.
Gumbo also narrated how he had stood firm as the human resource manager of Hwange Colliery when the Zanu-PF-led government insisted that Anglo America withdraw their scholarship for Mutambara’s education.
Anglo America was bankrolling Mutambara’s education at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ).
Then a UZ Student Representative Council president, Mutambara, was challenging Mugabe and at one stage told the President point blank during a graduation day that “we are completely against the one party State”.
“Mugabe had tried to be polite and do small talk,” Mutambara said.
“He said ‘when I graduated at Fort Hare in 1951 there were nine graduates in Zimbabwe’. I said stop. I don’t want to talk about that!”
“I want to talk about the one party State. We are completely against the one party State by any means necessary, then he said ‘if you take such strong views we will be dismissive of you’, then I said we have dismissed you completely, it does not matter if you dismiss us or not…don’t tell us about your Fort Hare and nine degrees,” Mutambara said to laughter.
“…That’s history you can’t be polite and I don’t apologise for that, they were views, good views.”
In his formative years, Mutambara was very committed to the Zanu-PF one party State mantra but turned against the ideology when he enrolled at the UZ where he was awakened to “looting and stealing”.
Mutambara also spoke about the day before his graduation at UZ which is also covered in the book.
“When we were graduating in 1990 the problem of unemployment had already started….so I came to Harare and said I am graduating in protest, (I felt) ‘graduation is a now manifestation of hypocrisy’ we are graduating from what to what if there are no jobs, so I made a statement. I would not shake his hand, knowing it will go to the CIO and those who are paid to be angry on his behalf…”
Mutambara changed his mind after he received a standing ovation in honour of impending Oxford sojourn.
“It disturbed me a little and I had to change tactics, so I decided I will shake his hand but I will not kneel for him,” he said.
Later Mutambara was to share power with Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai in a shaky GNU.
He was ousted from the helm of the MDC at a party congress, but refused to recognise the outcome of the congress by taking his case to the courts, and remained in government after the court processes dragged on until the expiry of the inclusive government.
Mutambara said in the GNU Mugabe would often wittingly remark that as a student “you would throw stones at me” but now we are both being subjected to criticism.
“We are now the enemy together, he would say,” Mutambara remarked.
Since this was his first public appearance in years, law professor Lovemore Madhuku concluded that this could be a sign that Mutambara was making a return to Zimbabwe politics.