Biographies Southern Africa 

Ode to Honorable John ZU Tembo, not a henchman (September 14, 1932 – September 27, 2023)

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. — Ephesian 4:11-13

Death was announced on Wednesday September 27, 2023, of John Zenus Ungapake Tembo (popularly referred to as JZU). He was one week into his 91st year. Malawians were thrown into a frenzy of varying emotions in hearing this about. Many people poured in their condolences as many more, especially conventional and social media poured their hatred and distaste of the Honorable Tembo. One accolade was that the late JZU was a henchman to the former Life President Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda. On its part the Malawi Government announced a three-three burial ceremony of the Honorable Tembo. But I have come to tell you that the Honorable JZU was the giant man of the 31-year moment in Malawi’s massive development years under former Life President Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda.

For a start in appreciate the massive contributions of this legendary figure in Malawi’s nationalist years, a few definitions of one of the accolade is essential. One may call him what they want and feel about JZU, however, the term henchman is not one of the. Definition of henchman: A henchman is a loyal employee, supporter, or aide to some powerful figure engaged in nefarious or criminal enterprises. Henchmen are typically relatively unimportant in the organization: minions whose value lies primarily in their unquestioning loyalty to their leader.

Historically: the word stood for a squire or page of honor to a person of rank.

In slang terms: The word stands for someone that works for or support the other person, especially by doing unpleasant, violent, or dishonest things on their behalf.

None of these definitions fit the late JZU, because to perfectly honest, he was from the very start always at the head of the pack in Malawi leadership circles; and in time he became the second most important person in Malawi.

Another accolade, wrongfully attributed to JZU, is the stained in our memories history, is the term “I will make you meat for crocodiles.” This is a very Malawian terms, a sentiment that was voiced by the former Life President, and JZU’s relation to the term is only in the fact that he was the President’s translator. Many Malawians will recall Dr. Banda delivered his statements in English and JZU, as his longest serving interpreter, interpreted Banda’s statement – word-for-word. Any time JZU detracted from the concurrently-delivered statement, President Band corrected him there at the functions. So Tembo learned to deliver the statement word-for-word.

As for the many wrong-doings of the departed stateman, if elder Malawians will recall, upon assuming power as the first multi-party President, Dr. Bakili Muluzi set up the Compensations Tribunal, chaired by Viva Nyimba; and persons like Machiphitsa Munthali, Chakufa Chihana and many others made their presentations and the government compensated many of them.

Moving on to the achievements or contributions of the late Honorable John ZU Tembo would require the pages of an entire book. This tribute will divide the contributions into three sections as follows: Pre-independent, independent (national development era), and post-multiparty Malawi.

In pre-independent Malawi, I heard a family member recounting the way JZU, other members of his family, and other anti-Federation activists, visited the detained freedom fighters in Gwero and Khami detention prison in Rhodesia (current Zimbabwe). The detainees included Kamuzu Banda, Orton Chirwa, Aleke Banda, Wiley Chokani, Lewis Makata, David Rubadri, Chisiza brothers, Bwanausi brothers, and Mbekeani brothers. Banda and the detainees were incarcerated for their protests against the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Dr. Banda and many of the detainees, spent one year in detention, and although JZU was not one of the detainees, his contribution to the breaking of the dreaded Central African Federation, was in the form of his and his family’s benevolence to the detainees.

In independent (nation-building) years, JZU got one cabinet ministry position after another, then moved on to becoming the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi,. Following his retirement, he was given over the position of MCP Treasurer-General, he was the chair of numerous corporations and organizations that spearheaded the forest-fire developments the country enjoyed in Banda’s 31-year rule, and what veteran journalist Mibawa TV anchor Wellington Kuntaja called the persona behind the successes of these organizations.

JZU was the chair of Limbe Leaf, Tobacco Processors, Press Corporation, Malawi Railroad, Air Malawi, Malawi Hotels, MDC, University Council, VIPYA Corporation, VIPLY, OilCom, New Building Society, Celebrations Council, Blantyre Print and Packaging. He was the head in development corporations in all sectors of Malawi’s development. The JZU seal is in all the flourishing Malawi experienced in 31 years. To top this, in all the companies, there evolved a growing population of happy, zealous (to please the Chair) employees. At the Reserve Bank that cadre of employees included watchmen, gardeners, and lower level clerical officers who were all accorded loans to buy houses in posh residential areas in Lilongwe like Area 47.

It was a known tradition for many of these employees to visit the Tembo farm in Dedza, as a means of paying homage, show of support and affirm endorsement. There has been no other person in Malawi before or since, who has held such a magnetic pull as JZU.

As chair of Air Malawi, bought a house in South Africa for its offices, moved Limbe Leaf and Tobacco Processors to Lilongwe (the hub of tobacco Agri-industry), and built the impressive landmark Reserve Bank building in Lilongwe.

While all the national development projects in the first 31 years, the Banda years, were at the behest of the Ngwazi, it was JZU, Malawi ManWonder, was the bulldozer of Banda’s Gwero dreams and other calls on Malawians. JZU brought them into reality by buttressing around himself people that scattered about the country turning Banda’s dreams and visions into reality. Banda blasted the dreams and visions from the political platform, JZU made sure the men and women that worked within the delivering corporations crystalized the projects into reality.

In addition to this, because he was chairman of most of the corporations in the country, Malawi saved money on foreign trips because he usually bundled up several appointments in one trip: one airline ticket, one hotel room, and food/beverages. Apart from being chair of everything in Malawi, JZU was also the longest-serving Presidential translator. This job has been previously held by Nyemba Wales Mbekeani (he vacated the position to pursue diploma at LSE, followed by a 14-year diplomatic career), Jasper Mbekeani, John Msonthi, and former SPC Pashani.

In post-multiparty Malawi, JZU kept his relevance in Malawi politics. His long-time wrangles with former Lower Shire strongman late Gwanda Chakuamba led to his ousting him from the leadership left to him by Banda. JZU held the leadership of the Malawi Congress Party from 2004-2013.

On its part, the Malawi Government has organized a fitting state funeral rite for the late former cabinet minister, one of the heroes from within the nation-building years or first President Banda, and the post-Banda years. According to a government flyer, the program for the funeral of Honorable Tembo is as follows:

Monday, October 2, 2023

— 8:00 AM – Collecting the Body from Goodwill mortuary;

— 9:00 AM- 5 PM – Public viewing at MCP Headquarters;

— 5:30 PM – Depart for the house in Area 10 for night vigil;

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

–7:00 AM – Depart for Malawi Square at BICC foe Eulogies

— 9:00 AM – Church Service

— 11:00 AM – Depart for Kamphata Village in Dedza

Wednesday October 4, 2023

— 8:00 AM – Burial ceremony in Dedza

Further to this outlay of honor for the late JZU, because he was a former Cabinet Minister and also in recognition of the enormous contribution he made to the nation, President Dr. Lazarus Chakwera directed that honorable Tembo be given full military honors.

I grew up in a political family and got to meet and interact with Honorable Tembo. I knew him as a diplomat’s child in the UK, USA, and Ethiopia. As a student at Chancellor College, I am humbled to recall how he and his wife as Chairman of the University of Malawi (UNIMA), held the first and only Chairman’s Ball after I was bullied by some boys at the school. I was ready to leave the Chancellor College due to the bullying, much of it being from the fact that I finished my education outside Malawi and came to the college in January long after the selection. Mr. and Mrs. Tembo came to hold the Ball to model for students on how to behave during dances and other good student habits.

As a graduate and young professional I met with the Honorable JZU, who was chairman of BP&P. My friend Alice and I had similar experiences. On my part, when I wanted to join the Blantyre Newspapers under Mike Kamwendo, JZU told my father that I was about to be employed as a journalist; but knowing Kamuzu’s sentiments and negative comments about journalists, my father asked him to hold on to my application. When I heard about it, I pleaded with my Dad to release the hold. I got the job and started my journey as an uprising media professional. My friend Alice was the only woman applying for the human resources position. When the chairman JZU heard about it, his comment was “Let her apply if she wants to.” Fortunately, she got the job, and has risen in human resources circles.

Four years after starting my own media empire publishing Woman Now, and later The Independent. My path first crossed with the strongman JZU when my paper ran an article on a BP&P board outcome. He had called my editor David Nthengwe to his offices to answer what the source of our story; I said I would go with David. At the meeting (in an office that had the heat on high), I said as the owner of the newspaper, I was responsible and would respond to his questions. Despite his asking for David and I to reveal the source of our BP&P board story that we had published, I never revealed, and neither did David.

The second time the paths crossed was when as a seasoned media professional, I established The Independent, and started giving voice and advocating for multi-party. Shortly following the 1994 UDF win, the Honorable JZU was placed in prison with the charge of responsibility for the Mwanza murders of the three ministers and an MP. During the ensuing imprisonment and trials, I had the opportunity to speak with him and write articles on his concerns with the treatment he was getting behind bars. Banda, Tembo, Lungunzi, and others, were all acquitted of the charges.

As the country continues to mourn the falling of the nation-building giant JZU, may we remember and be thankful for the contributions, many of which were not highlighted in this personal tribute.

May the soul of the late Honorable John Zenus Ungapake Tembo (JZU) rest in Jehovah God’s eternal loving peace.

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