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Jon Hendricks, Genre-Pushing Jazz Vocalist, Dead At 96

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Jazz singers, Dave Lambert (left), Annie Ross and Jon Hendricks with Canon L. John Collins on the steps of St Paul

The jazz singer and songwriter died Wednesday in Manhattan at the age of 96.

(Image credit: Keystone/Getty Images)

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Jon Hendricks (1921-2017)

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Jon Hendricks, a singer, songwriter and lyricist who pioneered vocalese—the art of crafting words to famed jazz solos—and was a co-founder of the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, died November 22. He was 96.

Jon died on the same day as producer George Avakian. (See my obit and complete interview with George here.) I interviewed Jon in 2009 for JazzWax. Here is my complete interview with him:

Jon Hendricks' pure sense of swing, poetic word-play and conversational vocalese remain unmatchedJon3_small. Truth be told, Jon' s splendid contribution to jazz has never been fully acknowledged or appreciated. Jon not only has written the words to dozens of songs based on famous jazz solos, he also has perfectly captured their infectious intent by singing every nuance of the original instrumentals. Which requires enormous skill, sensitivity and depth. If you wave off Jon's gifts as nothing more than a vocal magic trick, try this exercise: Grab the lyrics to Cloudburst or Everyday and sing along with the record. Not so simple, right? Jon can swing, he's bop hip, and since the early 1950s has been jazz's impersonator-in-chief, getting saxophone, trombone and trumpet solos up on their hind legs and walking.

Jon's recording career began in earnest in 1954 on a King Pleasure Kingpleasuremoodysmoodforlove session that featured vocalese singer Eddie Jefferson and the Three Riffs. In 1955, Jon and the Dave Lambert Singers recorded three tracks. But his big break came in 1957, when a failed recording session led to the formation of Cdcover Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. The group's first album, Sing a Song of Basie, won a Grammy Award and ignited a fresh vocal concept that was both fun and sophisticated.

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Jon Hendricks: I was born in 1921, in a railroad switch town called Newark, Ohio. It was just a hamlet with a dirt Oh_newark01 road running through it. My father was pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which served the area. No one was famous there. If you were alive back then in the Depression, you were a celebrity [laughs]. There were 17 of us—14 boys and 3 girls. There was no TV then, so getting along with each other was necessary and easy. You had no choice.

JW: That’s a lot of brothers and sisters.
JH: In number only. There was a lot of love in my family. There also were strict rules of living. In the morning, we had a crowd of children who needed to use the bathroom. So we lined up according to height and age, with the smallest in the front of the line. And it worked. Order always works. You can have a mob, but if they’re ordered, they can break down the strongest wall. Like everyone else in our neighborhood, we had a vegetable garden that helped put food on the table.

JW: Did your family remain in Newark, Ohio?
JH: No. My father could preach better than Peter, so the Woods71 church moved my father to many different parishes to energize congregations. I went to 13 different schools. The church paid for our relocation, and there was always a parsonage that went with the church, so we always had a house. We had to sleep three to a bed, of course, but we were used to that. That’s good for a family. It forces closeness. [Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the A.M.E. Church]

JW: What did your father do to keep all of you in line?
JH: Nothing. We were just exhorted to love one another. We had no problem with that. The problem came when my father would get all 17 of us downstairs on our knees to pray. We didn’t stand up or sit in a chair or anything like that. We got down on our knees to supplicate to a power that was bigger than us. Every morning he prayed for good and for the safety of all the world. And he exhorted us every morning to know, not to believe, to know that we were alive by the grace of god. He told us that there's nothing living that we can dislike.

JW: What was the problem?
JH: My father told us that every living thing is our brother and sister. He warned us that outside our front door, nobody believed that. So he said our task was to take that knowledge with us when we went outside, so that we behaved that way whenever we met someone. The problem was the real world didn’t always work that way or respond in turn to kindness and love.

JW: But your father's message helped you.
JH: Oh yes. My father taught me to fight for the right things, not the wrong ones. My father’s way of looking at life gave all of us a strong humane-ness. Everybody to this day likes my brothers and sisters.

JW: What was your first instrument?
JH: When I was a teen I took up the drums.

JW: What did your father think?
JH: I never knew what he thought. He never imposed anything on us. He told us how he expected us to behave but never said we could only do one thing and not another. He just urged us to be kind. If we were, he said, most men and women would like us and respect us. The problem is he never taught us how to go about doing that, except simply to treat everyone as a brother and sister.

JW: Eventually your family settled in Toledo, Ohio.
JH: Yes. And Art Tatum lived five houses from ours. He 995674_356x237 was from Toledo, too. When I started to sing as a kid, he accompanied me on the radio. Soon he began calling me for gigs. Can you imagine? Art Tatum calling me to sing with him? When I was 9 years old, I was known as Little Johnny Hendricks and sang at the Rivoli Theater in Toledo. Art was 21 years old.

JW: What was it like to sing with Tatum?
JH: Like singing with the Minneapolis Symphony. I once asked Tatum how had learned to play like that. He said his mother had bought him a piano roll featuring two pianists. Tatum, being blind, didn’t know that. He just listened and learned the piece being played on the roll. It turned out to be two guys playing at once. He had learned to play four hands anyway and didn’t think anything of it [laughs].

JW: When did you first hear bebop?
JH: On the boat coming home from Europe after World War II. I had just won $300 playing craps and was in my 220px-Charlie_Parker bunk reading when I heard someone playing Charlie Parker’s records. His music made complete sense to me because I was already familiar with Art Tatum. When Dizzy [Gillespie] and Bird [Charlie Parker] came on the scene, they were just following Art Tatum. Most people don't realize that Tatum was the father of bebop.

JW: How so?
JH: In later years, when I asked Bird where he had learned all the things he was playing, he said he had worked as a dishwasher at the Onyx Club on 52nd St. in the early 1940s just to hear Art Tatum play. Then, he said, he went back to Kansas City and learned to play with all the creativity and wisdom and speed of Tatum. And that’s what he did.

JW: What did you do after the transport ship docked in New York?
JH: When I got back in 1946, I moved back home and enrolled at the University of Toledo on the G.I. Bill. I majored in English and minored in historyCard00130_fr and was studying pre-law. I got all A's in English—including the only A awarded in creative writing in seven years. My English professor was Milton Marks, who had written a book on creative writing used in all the universities.

JW: Eventually you decided to move to New York. Why?
JH: Racism. I had married an Irish girl in Ohio, and we had a son. I had a 3.5 average at the university and was on track for law school. Because of my high academic average, I was to going to be appointed Juvenile State Probation Officer. That would have given me the privilege of socializing with police court and juvenile court judges. They didn't want that because my wife and I were an interracial couple. But they couldn’t just dismiss me. I had earned the grades I got and the position I was to receive. So they got the guy with next highest grades, a black guy. They told him that if he didn’t convince me to move out of town, they were going to fire him.

JW: What happened?
JH: The guy came over to my house and laid out the situation for me. He said he had a wife and two kids and that they told him to come over to my house and threaten me or he'd lose his job. The guy said to me, “I’m not going to do that. I’m just going to say that if you prevail and stay on your job, they're going to fire me. I have two kids. But I’m just going leave it with you.” So I decided to leave. Didn't make much sense staying after that.

JW: Why New York?
JH: Because of Bird. I had sung with him first in Toledo. He came through on a tour in 1949. I scatted with him. Kenny22 Miles had just left the quintet and Kenny Dorham [pictured] replaced him on trumpet. Al Haig took Duke Jordan’s place. I had Bird’s records and had researched everybody in the group. So when I went up to sing with him, I took about eight choruses. Then I started to exit the stage. But I felt this hand on my coattail. Kenny was up taking his solo so his chair was empty. I looked back and saw my coattail was in Bird’s hand. Bird motioned for me to sit in Kenny’s chair.

JW: What happened after the set?
JH: Bird asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to be a lawyer. Bird said, “You ain’t no lawyer. You’re a jazz singer.” I said, “What can I do with that?” Bird said, “You have to come to New York.” I said, “I don’t know anybody there.” Bird said, “You know me.” I said, “Where will I find you?” Bird said, “Just ask anyone” [laughs].  I left thinking, “This guy’s crazy.”

JW: So you never forgot that invitation.
JH: Right. So two years later, when that guy came to my house and told me to quit and get out of town, I decided I would first go with my wife and son to Canada to live. Racism didn’t seem to exist up there. I had $350 in my pocket. But when we arrived at the border, they wouldn’t let us into the country to emigrate unless we had at least $1,000.

JW: What did you do?
JH: My wife, child and I drove to Buffalo, N.Y. But our car Picture 1 broke down. We went to the bus station and, remembering what Bird had said, bought tickets and took the bus to New York City. When I arrived, I had only my wife and son, and a set of drums.

JW: What did you do when you arrived in New York after leaving Toledo, Ohio?
JH: Right away I called Joe Carroll, Dizzy Gillespie's singer. I knew Joe because he was with Dizzy when Dizzy offered me a job years earlier, when I was still in school. That's when Dizzy came to Detroit. I sang with him there. I knew what they were playing at the time because it was what Art Tatum had taught me.

JW: What did Carroll say?
JH: He said to stay at a hotel up at 116th and Broadway near Columbia University that charged $18 a week.

JW: Did you ask Carroll for a job?
JH: No. All I asked Joe was, “Where’s Bird?” Joe said “At 125th and 7th Ave., at the Apollo Bar.” So I went uptown Charlie-parker-017-img to see Bird. When I arrived at the bar, I put my hand on the doorknob but pulled it back. I started to feel silly. I thought, “This cat was doing one-nighters all over the Midwest. He’s not going to remember me." So I started to walk away from the bar, toward my hotel. But soon I stopped. I said to myself, “The only guy who knows what I do is in that place. I have to go in there.”

JW: Did you go back?
JH: Yes. I went back, gritted my teeth and walked in. Roy Haynes was on drums, Curly Russell was on bass, Bud Powell on piano, and Bird and Gerry Mulligan were playing. You had to walk right past the bandstand in that place to get to the tables.

JW: What happened?
JH: Bird stopped playing when he saw me walk by the stand. He shouted out, “Hey Jon, want to come up here and sing something?” It was two years and four months since I had seen him last during that one-nighter in Toledo. And he had remembered me.

JW: Parker had some memory, didn't he?
JH: Oh, man. Amazing. The guy had a great mind. Back in 1945, the British publisher of Cherokee wouldn’t let Bird record the song because they Koko thought it would be a desecration of the copyright. So Parker played the same chord changes but made up a different melody. Parker told Teddy Reig, the [Savoy Records] producer of the session to call it Ko-Ko. Years later, Teddy asked Bird what Ko-Ko meant. Bird said it was the name of the Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado [laughs]. Charlie Parker not only knew the work but the irony of the name and its use for the song. He was an intellectual. Later Bird kept a tape in his luggage of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. He liked the part where the woman screams [laughs].

JW: Did you go up and sing with Parker and the group?
JH: First I sat down at a table. When they got off the set, the musicians went off in different directions to buy their stuff. Roy didn’t use. He sat with his girl at the bar. Then they all came back. It was the last set.

JW: What did Bird say to you?
JH: He said, “We’ll play a few tunes first and then call you up.” On the third tune, Bird announced, “In Toledo, Ohio, an amazing young cat jumped up on stage and scatted. He happens to be here tonight. Come up, Jon.”

JW: Sounds like a confidence-building introduction.
JH: It was—until Roy Haynes [pictured] said real loud, “No, no, we don’t want no singers, Bird.” Parker said, RoyHaynes “Roy, cool it and sit down and play the drums.” I got up with them and sang three numbers, and the house went wild. I’ve always thought of myself as a horn, so that’s what I did. I scatted as though I were another horn in the group. They loved it.

JW: In December 1954, you recorded a track with vocalese pioneer King Pleasure.
JH: King Pleasure [pictured] brought me onto the record date. I had met him uptown at the Turf Bar a week or so earlier. He Picture 1 gave me a sheet of paper with his words to Stan Getz’s solo on Don't Get Scared, which Stan had recorded in '51 with his Swedish All-Stars. I said, “I see your words, but where are my words?” King Pleasure said, “You’re a writer. Write your own words.” So I did. That’s why when you listen to the recording, his words sound like a father talking to his son and I'm responding. I came up with that concept after leaving the bar. Quincy [Jones] arranged that session.

JW: You’ve always been a fast thinker and lyric writer.
JH: I write on demand like that. That’s how I wrote the words to Four Brothers around that time. I lived in New York and was on the streets for years before I got famous. I worked first in a newsprint factory. On my lunch break I’d hang out on Broadway in the 50s, where the songwriters were. They’d surround me and say, “Jon, what are you working on?”

JW: What would you tell them?
JH: I’d sing a ditty using my way of putting words together. Soon I'd hear what I sang on the radio a few weeks later. They were stealing my stuff.

JW: You had quite a fast mind.
JH: I did. I took pre-law at the University of Toledo because of my mind. When I was 9 years old I got all A’s in English. I loved books and always was adept at the 2908003348_462327ee2a language. My father always chose me to help him with the text for his Sunday sermons. He’d ask me to copy out text from the bible each week. This made me curious about everything and eager to research whatever I didn’t know. If I’m onto something, I don’t stop until I get to the truth. I do the same thing with my lyrics. I’ve always had a love of words and word combinations. After spending time on the streets and in the clubs of New York in the early 1950s, it all came together.

JW: How did Sing a Song of Basie come about—Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’ first album.
JH: Dave Lambert and I were like brothers. But when we first went in to record that album, Dave brought too many Dave Lambert Singers. They didn't swing. They were like a commercial choir, without that hip feeling. After a while, it wasn’t working. I told Dave, “We have to get some more African-Americans in here" [laughs]. Dave said, "Well, I guess so." Creed said, “No, no, no more singing. No more mass. I don't have any more money. Whatever we do, you three have to do it.”

JW: What did you say?
JH: Dave said, "We'll multitrack." Annie, me and Creed looked at each other and said, "What's that?" Dave said, "Well, we'll put three voices on a roll of tape. We'll do it four times and we'll have the 12 pieces of the Basie band and that will be it." We already had the rhythm section track recorded.

JW: You guys had never multitracked before, had you?
JH: Nobody had [to that extent with vocals]. And nobody had ever put the lyrics on the back of an album before. I invented that. I said this will let the listeners follow along. It will be better than some disc jockey writing about how great or not great the album is.

JW: So Creed saw the genius of that right away?
JH: Yeah.

JW: So did you write all your parts?
JH: I can't write music. I can't read music. I just sing music. Dave did all the writing.

JW: How did you sing all the parts without reading music?
JH: Dave gave me the tapes of the Basie parts and I learned them. I learn very fast.

JW: So in the tape, you could hear what each saxophone was playing through the band?
JH: Well, Dave isolated all the different parts on one tape.Scotch_tape He'd just take off the different parts he needed right from the recording. Instead of the whole band, you'd hear just one saxophone—the first alto and the second alto, the first tenor and the baritone, one after the next. Annie had the same thing but with the trumpets, and Dave had the trombones.

JW: So you'd learn the four parts. You'd put down the lead track first and then come back and sing the other harmonizing saxes until all four parts were recorded. What an amazing invention.
JH: It was. I don't even know the right word to describe it. It was god at work.

JW: If any one of you couldn't pull that off, you would have been in trouble.
JH: Well, Annie had already recorded the way we sang.  Images Twisted was out already. She was singing vocalese before Dave and I did.

JW: But not the multitracking.
JH: No. But that's not a creative process. That's just a creative use of electricity [laughs].

JW: But it was still tricky to pull off.
JH: Well, I guess so. But for us it was so easy, it's hard to see the difficulty in that now.

JW: What happened next?
JH: We recorded the tracks over the next month and a half. But when Dave put all the tracks together and we came in to hear it, the master was a mess. [Jon 2950918736_2700ddb81a imitates the sound of the distorted voices on the tape]. When assembling all the parts onto one master tape, we had put the least-heard voices—the alto, the second trombone and the baritone parts—on top. And the others next. So it was inaudible. There was no blended order to the parts. We should have recorded each section separately and then brought them together by modulating the sections by the dials.

JW: Did you three flip out?
JH: We were a little stunned. Creed [pictured] started moaning, “Oh god, I’m going to lose my job.” He was in tears. Creed was 6a00e008dca1f0883401156f5e963a970c-250wi such a sweet cat. We all loved him. So Dave said, “Give us another month and a half. What time do you close?" Creed said, "At 8 [p.m.]. Dave said, "We’ll be in here at 8:15 p.m. What time do you open?" Creed said, "At 7 [a.m.]." Dave says, "We'll leave at 6:45. Just give us the time." Creed said, "I won't be able to come up with any more money." Dave waved him off, saying, "We don't need the money. Just give us the time and we'll come in and do this right.”

JW: What did you three do?
JH: We came in and re-recorded everything at night, the way it should have been done in the first place. And when we heard the master the next time around, all four of us sat down and cried like babies. You could hear instantly how good it was. And to this minute, till right now, I can truthfully say that it’s the best vocal album I have ever heard in my entire life.

JW: It can't be duplicated, that's for sure.
JH: Nope. Annie and I will be brother and sister for the 620702_356x237 rest of our lives. Dave, too, bless his heart.

JW: So you worked through the night, every day for a month and a half?
JH: That's right [pause]. What else did we have to do? [roaring laughter]. Those were good days.

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How Zimbabwe Freed Itself of Robert Mugabe

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Petina Gappah on the resignation of the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and what the future may have in store for the African country.
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Paul Biya yesterday, today and tomorrow

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Credit: US Department of State, 2014.

Cameroon’s President Paul Biya did not partake in any of the public events marking his thirty-fifth anniversary in power last Monday. The country’s armed forces did not parade in front of their supreme commander along Yaounde’s boulevard de 20 Mai. In the Anglophone regions, there were few ebullient spectacles of loin wearing party militants waving banners bearing Biya’s youthful image. Instead, most of this year’s celebrations led by officials of Biya’s Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) took place indoors in small clusters in their respective regions of origin. Across the country, these “elites” mostly implored their militants to vote for Biya in next year’s elections.

At one such gathering at the Congress Hall in the city of Bamenda, the same venue where Biya launched the CPDM thirty-two years ago, Prime Minister Philemon Yang, the permanent coordinator of the party in the region (where he is also a native), drove the message home when he urged those present to “do everything possible to ensure that the National Chairman is re-elected. And, despite the deteriorating security situation in English speaking regions such as this (where separatist sentiments have blossomed after protests by teachers and lawyers were met with violence by security forces), the political barons and their acolytes (who gathered under the theme “CPDM Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”) did not address the crisis that necessitated the heavy security presence. That security is an offshoot of the militarization that Bamenda — a bastion of opposition to Biya’s rule — has witnessed in the past year. Instead, these barons focused on matters of the party, which at this point in the party’s history are inseparable from its progenitor.

Pedigree matters

L’Institut des hautes études d’outre-mer, which was founded in 1889 during France’s Third Republic to train colonial administrators, was once located in Paris’s deuxième Avenue de l’Observatoire. In 1966, President Charles De Gaulle decreed its transformation into l’institut international d’administration publique, which in 2002 was absorbed by l’École Nationale d’Administration (ENA). But before its integration into France’s network of grande écolesl’institut des hautes études d’outre-mer was reputed as a top-flight destination for ambitious colonial administrators from Indochina, Madagascar and its African colonies. It was perhaps this reputation that attracted the young Biya, a graduate of Paris’s l’institut d’Etudes Politiques. He would go on to earn an advanced degree in public law from the institution.

Upon his return to the recently independent East Cameroun, Biya was quickly absorbed into the higher echelons of new president Ahmadou Ahidjo’s nascent state, where he was made chargé de mission at the presidency. In the dozen years he would take to scale the walls of power, he would hold several key positions in Ahidjo’s lair including Director of the Civil Cabinet and Secretary General. Meanwhile the administration that counted him among its haute cadres was at war with remnants of the Marxist-nationalist movement that had inspired Cameroon’s drive towards independence. Though it is unclear how influential Biya was within Ahidjo’s inner circle of eclectic characters, what is certain is that he must have made enough of an impression on the wily Ahidjo for the latter to appoint him his Prime Minister in 1975.

Whatever it was, there are segments of the country’s radio trottoir that attribute his rise to his taciturn manner; which they argue his predecessor misjudged when he allegedly tried to play puppet master after handing power to Biya in 1982. Less than two years later, on April 6th, 1984, several officers from Ahidjo’s North Cameroon Fulani-Hausa fief staged a failed coup d’etat, which that same radio trottoir claims resulted in the entrenching of the complex network of patronage and loyalties that were established in the Ahidjo’s era.

Power Show

President Biya did not conceive the system, which he has thrived in, but deserves as much credit for the modifications that have enabled his sustained his three-decade plus reign. So when Biya assembled Cameroon’s array of monarchs, academics, businessmen, high level bureaucrats, and petit-bourgeois apparatchiks to launch the CPDM on the embers of Ahidjo’s Cameroon National Union (CNU) as the country’s only political party, he was writing himself into a legacy his predecessor and his French handlers designed for the state. Actually, Biya’s CPDM was just a reframing of Ahidjo’s CNU consisting of the same figures and structure. Nonetheless, a sleight of hand to dislodge his predecessor’s personality cult while cultivating one for himself.

In order to consolidate the enormous presidential power — inherent in Cameroon’s centralized system — at his disposal, he unilaterally changed the name of the country from the United Republic of Cameroon into La Republique du Cameroun, in French, which for West Cameroonians signaled a cynical ploy to erase the history of the reunification of the two Cameroons. Whatever Biya’s motives were, what was made clear in the years that followed was the new administration’s hardened stance towards dissent in the midst of an economic crisis, which paradoxically did not curtail the Moët et Chandon class’s ostentation.

Despite these power moves on the part of Biya’s government, reform-minded Cameroonians from a range of backgrounds including academics, jurists, writers, journalists and career dissenters began to meet clandestinely in places like Bamenda, Yaounde and Douala to address issues like freedom of the press, electoral democracy and a general liberalization of the socio-political landscape. The regime’s failure to violently repress it once it reached the critical masses, led to some concessions like the legalization of multiparty politics, elections and “liberties” including freedom of speech and the press.

Autopilot Rule

Though official records gave Biya a slight edge over his main opponent in the 1992 presidential elections, I am among those Cameroonians who believe the incumbent stole the 1992 elections. They were against John Fru Ndi, the candidate for the Union for Change, a coalition of opposition parties, unions and civic society groups, which banded together to unseat the incumbent. But I am also among those who will acknowledge that the circumstances that enabled that challenge have since changed meanwhile some of the liberties gained during those bloody years are being undercut by a political class beholden to the whims of its supreme magistrate.

In the years since the 1992 presidential elections that almost toppled Biya, the regime has moved to coopt factions of the very coalition that once challenged it; the ideological demarcations that once defined the political opposition to the regime in place been muddled with the creation of phantom political parties that usually emerge during elections to muddy the waters. With a population estimated at under 25 million people, Cameroon has over 200 political parties, which under normal circumstances would reflect a robust democratic culture, but in Biya’s Cameroon these developments have resulted in a retreat by the critical mass that enabled them in the first place.

These days, Biya spends a significant amount of time in Swiss five star hotels and at the presidential residence in his village of Mvomeka in Cameroon’s South region. It is from these locations that he runs this quilted complexity of a country with a measure of detachment, which has enabled him to avoid the scrutiny of the “international media” unlike a regional peer like Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

The custom fitted suits that once hugged Biya’s youthful body now look ragged on his frail frame. But so is the frame that holds the pieces of his fragile nation. Meanwhile, those who congregated in Bamenda’s Congress Hall and across the territory to celebrate his 35th anniversary in power also understand that their survival depends on perching their hopes on the man, the symbol and the deity.

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Mugabe was no revolutionary. He was obsessed with power and control

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Mugabe 1980. Image credit Archives New Zealand via Flickr.

In the future, when history is written about Robert Mugabe, it will not be about a black man raised by a single mother, who defied all odds in racially segregated Southern Rhodesia to pursue an education at the highest levels. Neither will it be a history of an articulate black African teacher-turned-politician who spent around a decade in prison for challenging white colonial racism and working for the betterment of black Zimbabweans. It will be for the four decades that Robert Mugabe was at the helm of power in post-colonial Zimbabwe, in which his rule was anything but admirable.  

As a young politician in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mugabe was by no means the most prominent of black nationalists who were fighting white colonial rule. Neither was he the most motivated. He was, however, the most eloquent, if not sophisticated. For a clique of educated black elites, whose political and societal outlook was fashioned in mission schools, Mugabe was the man of choice to convey the message to white rulers – in voice and comportment – that blacks were no longer “uncivilized tribesmen.” They were sophisticated enough to deserve the franchise. In everyday manners and air, Mugabe was an “English man” who spoke their language in the shapely tone of an eloquent and “cultured” gentleman. It is no wonder that when he arrived on the nascent nationalist scene, fellow nationalists noticed his gift of gab and he was assigned the job of publicity secretary in their organization, the National Democratic Party (NDP). Then, Mugabe had come back home, presumably for holidays, from Ghana where worked as a teacher, with the intention to go back to West Africa. He may never have wanted to stay in Rhodesia for long. His entry into national politics, it seems, was made of anything but personal resolve. He became the reluctant late-comer who went on to dominate Zimbabwean politics for almost half a century.  

Much of what people from outside Zimbabwe know about Robert Mugabe started on 18 April 1980, when the colonial tether on Zimbabwe snapped, and the country gained independence from Britain. The popular story is that Mugabe, as a Marxist revolutionary, ushered in a new era of liberation and social progress, exemplified by the early enthusiasm in expanding the education and health delivery system for black people. Even that narrative is misleading. Mugabe was neither a socialist nor a revolutionary. When juxtaposed with other African post-independent social and political revolutionaries – Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda among other luminaries — Mugabe makes for an awkward comparison. For his time in Ghana, he indeed learnt very little from Nkrumah’s quest for a holistic social transformation backed by strong ideological convictions. Mugabe was a rebel, however one who wanted to replace white rulers for a self-interested political project. He tactfully did so, but not without copious doses of Machiavellism, if not outright wickedness. 

He hated revolutionary talk, the same way he hated revolutionary garb. When he “talked revolutions,” it was expedient for his narrow political ascendancy to life presidency. When he donned revolutionary garb (even then, very briefly in the early 1980s for a picture poses), he always unseemly added a tie to a safari suit. That is the furthest that he went. One could easily separate a nerdy Mugabe, socially distancing himself from his “less sophisticated” but hands-on peers, who did not mind getting their hands dirty leading ideologically abutted socialist programs. A story is often told that Mugabe was quick to express his displeasure at the invitation of Bob Marley to perform at the Independence celebrations in 1980. It’s said he had wanted a pianist, preferably British, possibly Cliff Richard. Mugabe never hid his disdain for pot-smoking and dreadlocked black men, he instead marveled at European classical musicians, especially Beethoven. I may sound like someone majoring on the minors.  

As an intellectual, Mugabe was never a serious one, unlike his peers, Nyerere and Kaunda. His idea of intellectualism was confined to the uninspiring accumulation of certificates, academic or otherwise. His much vaunted “seven university degrees” many achieved through correspondence, were a testimony to this. A cursory google search of his “works” shows one collection of his speeches titled “Neither Our war of liberation: Speeches, articles, interviews, 1976-1979,” but nothing intellectually intriguing. His politics, therefore, lacked ideological robustness and many of his party and national programs were not designed to outlive him. For that reason, he loathed any discussion about succession, and was violent to anyone posing any kind of threat to him as the Oberführer of the killing machine that his party ZANU-PF turned out to be. 

It is easy to point out the expansion of social programs, such as the education system and health services during the independence euphoria of the 1980s, as an example of Mugabe’s commitment to black people and socialism. But people are usually quick to forget that throughout the 1980s, and with “Britain’s wilful blindness”, now we know, Mugabe sought to create a one-party dictatorship in the mould of the Kims’ North Korea. He, in fact, invited North Korean military supervisors to help him create a private army brigade that hounded the opposition and committed one of the worst atrocities against African people in independent Africa. In the end, an estimated 20,000 civilians, most of them isiNdebele speaking black men, women and children, lay dead in unmarked mass graves. 

He thus had a bizarre “populism” that relied on force rather than the support of the masses. It was expedient for a self-interested political ambition but simply unsustainable. It began tottering from the 1990s onwards. Faced with a fast-changing global political economy and louder demands for change at home, Mugabe’s “socialism” was exposed as a clumsy fraud that it was. Western donors who had footed part of his bills started isolating him, corruption in his government sprouted. The perceived glories of the 1980s went down the drain and with them went the social programs. Epidemic after epidemic also exposed the weak foundations of the health care delivery system; from HIV and AIDS in the late 1990s, to Cholera and Typhoid in the 2000s. Educated Zimbabweans hopped in desperation from one country to another, carrying wads of certificates that usually gave them minimum wage jobs if not “bullshit jobs”.  

The Mugabe era education system specifically, was bad for the country. With it, he stifled critical minds and killed innovation. Schools taught people to cram for examinations and follow instructions down to a tee. The most famous teacher in the village or township was one who whacked the hell out of children for failing a test. Most school were a mirror image of Mugabe’s political modus operandi; whacking dissenters and ruling the country with a huge stick in hand. Decidedly, in such school pupils passed with high grades, but out of fear. Fear of the teachers’ reprisals or in the case of college students, fear of being left behind when others got enough “qualifications” to skip the border after graduation. Mugabe, a teacher trained in the 1940s and 1950s, when blacks weren’t expected or allowed to think critically, managed to oil and expand what his Rhodesian predecessors had left behind. He flaunted this education system whenever he got the chance. It churned out a politically compliant population that loved instruction manuals and textbooks. Individuals who recited what they memorized under the watch of an angry teacher – and ended up doing it with glee. That of course, was sometimes seen as a “sign of intelligence” amongst Zimbabweans.

In the early 2000s when I enrolled at the University of Zimbabwe, the campus was severely intimidated. Criticisms of the President and the ruling party was sporadic and minimal. Student activists and professors were cowed and afraid. Undoubtedly, some of the student activists were angered by the Robert Mugabe regime, but a fair share, I suppose, took activism as an opportunity to, occasionally, get a decent meal, a t-shirt and an allowance at some NGO-organized students’ workshop. Or quite strategically, for a few, to find the easiest way out of the country through a “persecuted students” scholarship. And I don’t blame them, everyone was leaving, the country was on its knees, even government ministers’ children were scarpering. 

Those who managed to skip the border to escape the hellhole that our country had become, made for lovely, smiling and articulate butlers and waiters that attended to tourists in places like Dubai and Cape Town. Zimbabweans could, of course, read and cram the menu, enough to explain food recipes to visitors in impeccable English. They also made for the best implementers of NGO projects – whether or not they believed in their employers’ philosophies (most of the times we didn’t). They became the best foremen and machine operators on farms in South Africa’s Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces – because they could read and follow instructions on seed and pesticide packages. Most never uttered any criticism, come rain come sunshine. Sadly that “culture” extended to politics of our nation. And Robert Mugabe knew that.

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Endgame for Mugabe

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On 4 November, Grace Mugabe announced that she could see no problem with her succeeding her husband as president of Zimbabwe. ‘What if I get in?’ she said. ‘What’s wrong with that?’ Then Robert Mugabe fired the vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the last of his long-term allies. That wasn’t wise. Mnangagwa, one of the original […]
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