How A Kenyan saved South Africa from slipping into chaos after apartheid
Ahead of South Africa’s Independence elections 20 years ago, Prof Washington Jalang’o Okumu had his fingers on the heart valves of history by single-handedly saving the epoch exercise from collapse and inevitable bloodbath.
And as he successfully intervened for peace in the faraway land, he witnessed a series of events back home that would see Jaramogi Oginga Oginga and Tom Mboya decline to take over Government when Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was in detention. Okumu recalls that even though Kenyatta eventually ascended to power on Odinga’s intervention, the two would soon fall out and set the country on the road to political divisions that have never healed to date.
In South Africa, a dangerous scenario was unfolding. In Okumu’s words at the time, Rwanda’s genocide would have been a picnic in comparison to South Africa. US Secretary of State Warren M Christopher said more than two million lives would have been lost.
The big man from Kenya as he was fondly known by his peers in the diplomatic world at the time, recalls cooling his heels on the tarmac at the international airport in Johannesburg, waiting to catch a flight to Nairobi when the plane carrying Zulu leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi suddenly developed mechanical problems mid air. Buthelezi was returning home to Kwazulu Natal after the initial talks collapsed.
“It was an act of God,” he says. “Dr Henry Kissinger and a former British Prime Minister James Callaghan who were part of the negotiating team had surrendered and flown out of South Africa in despair. I managed to convince Buthelezi to return to the negotiation venue with Nelson Mandela and drop his Inkatha Freedom Party’s (IFP) push for an independent Zulu nation that had caused the impasse,” says Okumu.
“I told Buthelezi to think of the bigger picture and how history would treat him harshly if South Africa imploded into a slaughterhouse because of his intransigence. It was the year of Rwanda genocide that I told him would look like a picnic in comparison to a failed South Africa. Unimaginably, he thawed his stance paving way for successful elections won by Mandela’s African National Congress,” he adds.
Thrown in the towel
Thus, Okumu prevailed where the acclaimed Kissinger, a former US Secretary of State and top-notch diplomat who taught him at Harvard and a former British Prime Minister had thrown in the towel.
The professor who turns 79 years in three month’s time, remains one of Africa’s proudest sons, with indelible spoors in the sands of the continent he once straddled in the diplomatic sphere like a colossus.
Ostensibly, a legend from the peace he brokered to convert apartheid South Africa into the prosperous rainbow nation it is today, Okumu watches the twilight glow of his days from his rural home at Nyang’oma village near Bondo township, Siaya County, ailing but cheerful.
The home with the words Dala Kwe (Home of peace) stenciled at the bolted main gate wrought of steel is accessible only through a side gate strictly on appointment when a female aide, Josephine Owiti, clears the expected visitor. My turn came and I was ushered in.
The big man who has changed a little as seen from photographs taken at his prime was seated on an armchair in his spacious bedroom when I walked in.
“You are lucky,” he says eyeing me with a broad smile that lit his face. “I have not been well. This is only the fourth time I am sitting out of my bed since 2011 when we lost Nyar Seme”, he says referring to his late wife and mother of his eight children, Mrs Rispah Achieng Okumu who breathed her last on January 25, 2011.
He pauses to take drugs brought in by Ms Owiti. “It is not because I am too sick that I hardly leave the bed,” he explains. “I have been mourning since Rispah’s departure. I have been quiet. It is also in protest at the way the Government has treated me.”
Protest? He declines to elaborate as curiosity takes the better of me. He abruptly changes the topic. “You saw the main gate tightly closed? It has remained so for four years now since Rispah left. It was her gate because traditionally, this home belonged to her. I do not see it opening because I do not intend to remarry.” The finality in his voice cannot be gainsaid.
“Not only do I cherish peace, I toyed with the idea of building a peace institute here. It was not to be, but I did not let go of the dream,” he says.
He clears his throat and the discussion shifts to his public life that he says spans 56 years to the time he returned from Harvard with an Honours Bachelor of Arts Degree in Economics, straight into the hands of Tom Mboya and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
He had gone to Harvard courtesy of Mboya after completing his secondary education at Maseno School in 1955. “Among my teachers at Maseno were Odero Jowi and the late Samuel Ayany,” he reminisces.
“I returned to Kenya, an educated young man who could fit in many places without suspicion. I was close to Mboya and Jaramogi and both would use me as an errand boy of sorts.”
He closes his eyes tight, strokes the short white hair that dominates his face and as if reading my mind he blurts out: “Back to South Africa. Nelson Mandela. Oh, Madiba. May his soul rest in eternal peace. He was my bosom friend, a great man by all descriptions! The Mandela Foundation recognised our closeness when I become the second person they called upon the icon’s death. His wife Graca called me with the message’ “your friend has left us. I nearly swooned.” He says, his face drenched in sadness.
“How did I get involved in South Africa’s peace negotiations, given the fact that Kenya is geographically far removed from South Africa? It is a long story as told in my manuscript entitled ‘How the South African peace was achieved’. But I can summarise it this way.”
“Mandela and Chief Buthelezi had long been my friends. The former from my days as a student of economics at the King’s College in London. I met him in 1960 on his way to Israel to train as a soldier in the wake of the birth of Umkhonto we Sizwe (spear of the nation), the armed wing of ANC. That was soon after the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960 that claimed over 60 lives. The bitterness in his expression was unequivocal.”
My relationship with Buthelezi dates back to 1965 when as an international diplomat working with the United Nations in Vienna, Austria, we met in Washington DC.
As head of the African department that brought together all African heads of liberation movements, with Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Eduardo Mondlane of Mozambique as driving engines.
“I had spent decades studying African economies and politics with emphasis on apartheid by the time of South Africa’s independence elections in 1994. Someone got wind of all this and recommended me when the world seemed to have failed in South Africa. Mandela and Buthelezi had no qualms about my inclusion in the team where Kissinger and Callaghan were key players,” he says.
Okumu says he had a stint as President Kenyatta’s private secretary before he won a commonwealth scholarship to do his Masters in economics at Cambridge.
“At this juncture, I trained the first crop of Permanent Secretaries, among them Kenneth Matiba, Job Onyango Omino and Duncan Ndegwa, the first African Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, to mention but a few,” he says.