Dr. Jonathan Hannock Chileshe
ROBINSON CHISANGA PUTA CHEKWE: ZAMBIA'S TRADE UNION MOVEMENT STALWART
Zambia became a sovereign state at the stroke of midnight on 24 October 1964. There was absolutely nothing magical about the time when Northern Rhodesia, like a snake, shade its outer skin to become the Republic of Zambia. It was of course a culmination of events that led to Zambia's independence but the choice of date and time was by mutual agreement between the departing colonial administration and the nationalist movement.
Humankind has since time immemorial, been fascinated by how effortlessly history is sometimes made. Neither does the fact that history has a habit of repeating itself lessen this fascination. It is necessary that we bear in mind some of these facts in reviewing the various contributors to Zambian history. We shall by and large, apply the same principle in reviewing Robinson Chisanga Puta's role, first and foremost as an instrument of the African trade union movement. Secondly, as a budding politician, who actively participated in the events that eventually led to the transformation of Northern Rhodesia to the Republic of Zambia.
It is in the light of the above that this analysis embraces three mutually inclusive levels of Robinson Puta's activities. These levels are, (a) individual, (b) collective and/or (c) collaborative. In more ways than one, these activities are an affirmation of Dana Atkin's observation that "Life [is] not a written book you can pick up and read, (rather) it is a journal waiting to fill its pages". We are similarly reminded by William Shakespeare in Macbeth that "Life's but a walking shadow, (where) a poor player struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". What the author is not quite sure about concerns the latter part "of being told by an idiot". However, to fail to elaborate these sentiments would deny posterity the opportunity of appreciating important foundations on which stands Zambian history. It has been said many times over that a country or nation with an incomplete history is likely to have a shaky future or no assured future at all. There is no denying as the quotation from Shakespeare puts it that Robinson Puta, like all mortals is at best, "a mere player" on the Northern Rhodesian and Zambian scenes. Granted, some of his pronouncements might indeed have been full of sound and fury. But this may be reason enough to conduct a review of the significance of his contribution at the material time and establish their relevance to some later developments. Had the contribution of Robinson Puta and his colleagues not been significant, the African trade union movement might perhaps have been slow in coming of age.
It is equally important at this point in time to briefly recall other fundamental observations about human nature, especially when working as a community towards a common cause. Arnold Toynbee for one, observed, among other things, that "people and communities do not hoist themselves by their own boot straps, without a strong incentive to do so. Where life is easy, man becomes indolent; where it is hard, he becomes inventive and industrious. Oddly enough he reaches his greatest heights of heroism and self-sacrifice while indulging in his most selfish stupidity -war". He goes on to stress that "Man is a strange machine. His life is a war between selfishness and animal pleasures and an innate desire for the spiritual good. His course may be decided by his own inherited character, but he will be constantly swayed by pressures of his environment". Can the same not be said about the Northern Rhodesia situation and the emergence of the African trade union movement during the colonial era?
Nothing would be further from the truth than the assertion that one person was entirely responsible for the success or failure of nationalism or for that matter, the emergence of trade unions in Northern Rhodesia. The roles played by the various actors were different but it was their sum total that made all the difference in the end.
On this point, all serious researchers are agreed.
Achievement of the final product without the contribution of unsung heroes would have been delayed unnecessarily or achieved with less perfection. Somehow, a trend against all wisdom had developed during the period the United National Independence Party (UNIP) ruled supreme, to single out one or a handful rather than all the freedom fighters for the country's heroic achievements. It was as if the protagonists were oblivious to the adage of "one finger being incapable of picking a louse". This historical and literary shortcoming is not confined to Zambians. To the contrary, it is quite general, given the replete of written accounts of individuals portrayed larger than life in the events of their respective countries: Charles De Gaulle (France); Sir Winston Churchill (United Kingdom); Mao Tse Tung (China); Napoleon (France); Leopold Senghor (Senegal); Julius Nyerere (Tanzania); and Haile Selassie (Ethiopia), to mention but a few examples. Somehow and because time is a great teacher, adjustments have had to be made in order to accommodate the contribution of several other actors, who for want of appropriate terminology, we designate as unsung heroes.
The sacrifices these few individuals made in the sphere of improved conditions of work and better wages for the African mine workers can be likened, even though on a relatively smaller scale, to British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill's observation when he recounted the great loss suffered by the allied forces during the Second World War: "Never before in human history, have so many owed so much, to so few". To a limited extent the works of McPherson and Mwendapole have attempted to bring to life the respective contributions of the few who sacrificed for the benefit of many.
THE AFRICAN MINE WORKERS UNION IN NORTHERN RHODESIA
The study and evolution of the trade union movement among the African mineworkers, especially those that stood shoulder to shoulder against the new movement's adversaries became a seedbed, out of which, the likes of Robinson Puta sprouted. Africans and in particular the mineworkers did not see themselves as budding politicians at the time. Whatever came their way in political terms was less by design and more by accident. Perhaps another angle to the story is illustrated by how they agitated for increased wages, improved conditions of work and attempts to be treated equally with their white "counterparts" by virtue of working in the same environment and at the same ore body. Any attempt by African mineworkers to emulate what was enjoyed by the white mineworkers was to court trouble. For the faint-hearted in the African community, at the material time, such demands were considered pipe-dreams and treated with the contempt they deserved.
In a country like Zambia records of past events are difficulty to come by for a variety of reasons. Either they were deliberately destroyed by some colonial administrators that wanted to cover up their bad track record or simply thrown out by the new Zambian administrators as in proverbially throwing "the baby with the bath water". Logic in circumstances of this kind dictates that the analysis is better presented within the context of the activities relating to the evolution of the African mineworkers' leadership and remotely, the emergence of the African intelligentsia and how both combined to bring colonialism to an early end.
The scramble for Africa and the resulting partition of the continent was a total mess, considering the suffering and pain to which the Africans were subjected. Zambia did not escape the negative impact of colonialism. The discovery of several minerals, principally copper, zinc and vanadium brought prosperity to the country. It also brought considerable misery and exploitation of black workers, especially on the mines. The system of ruling that evolved reflected this exploitation. A racist system was put in place that ascribed negative connotations to "blackness" at every opportunity. From the European point of view "blackness" was synonymous with "evil". In other words, any one "black" had to be treated as sub-human.
The Algerian writer, Franz Fanon is on record as saying that "it was not just a matter of destroying the African property or undermining the African culture but more importantly, the destruction of the African as a Human Being". In other words, the central purpose and ultimate objective of destruction was destroying the faith in him (African) so that he (African) is dehumanised. There can be no better example than to show the extent to which the mining authorities and their minions were prepared to go in ridiculing African culture and weakening African leadership. This aspect is covered in greater detail later.
Furthermore, colonialism under the British rule nakedly exposed itself as a total contradiction to the professed British ideal of fair play and responsibility for the subject race. The crux of the matter at the material time, in Northern Rhodesia in particular, was that everything was organised along racial lines. In other words, what mattered above all else, during the period in question, was one's race. A person's station in society, in commerce, industry or any other economic field was determined by race, in total disregard of ability and character. Least appreciated by many analysts of the period in question was the significance of the "race card". The colonial masters and their supporters employed the "race card" as a psychological terror weapon against the indigenous people. Thus, every person with a "white skin" was by custom of the European ruling class, superior to every "black" African, in status. Similarly, the former was automatically assumed to be more intellectually efficient than the latter.
Agitation by the African mine workers for improved working conditions and better wages was construed as challenging the white mine kings and their henchmen. From their point of view, the African miner was well paid and cared for, given shelter, medical facilities and rations. In other words, they could not understand the cause of dissatisfaction by the Africans. Mere suggestion of agitation was condemned as a sign of ingratitude on the part of the African miner, considering that his counterpart in the village did not have the aforementioned privileges at his disposal.
It was a result of that agitation that led to the imposition in September 1956, of the Restriction Order. This law gave the colonial administration power to arbitrarily imprison Africans and deprive them of other rights. The African leadership challenged the Restriction Order in the courts and obtained a ruling in its favour since the action was found to be illegal. The colonial administration, working hand in hand with vested white mining interests, were not however about to accept defeat at the hands of Africans. In their determination, they had to ensure that at least those Africans already behind the bars did not have the opportunity to walk free before they had completed their prison terms. In furtherance of that objective, the Governor of Northern Rhodesia convened an emergency meeting of the Legislative Council (Legco) which then passed a law that ensured restricted persons, including Robinson Chisanga Puta served their prison sentences to the full. These tactics were part of a strategy meant to frighten would be African agitators.
The colonial administration tried to stem the influence of the African intelligentsia by creating the African Representative Council (ARC) in 1946. The main purpose was to divert African political ambitions from the Welfare Societies.
To some extent, this sort of background helps to explain what drove the Africans to do what they did against such considerable odds. It is possible in light of these draconian laws, to appreciate how at the material time, the evolution of militancy in Robinson Puta and his contemporaries was nurtured. To a large extent, the emergence of the Northern Rhodesia African Mineworkers Union (NRAMWU) was the catalyst for more generalised politics in the country.
In total contrast and before the arrival of a genuine trade union movement among African workers, white miners had already organised themselves into a Northern Rhodesia Mine Workers Union (NRMWU). They then crafted a strategy that exclusively ensured for themselves, a better deal from the mining companies. Understandably, the white mineworkers did everything to prevent and to suppress any aspirations of their African counterparts.
Attempts to weaken African resolve by the combined forces of the colonial administration and the all embracing mining "kings" included greater insistence on use of a circuitous complaint system.
Whites in charge of both African miners and the mine residential areas, known as Compounds, were selected on the basis of their cruelty and harshness to African workers. This is borne out by the fate that befell Mr.Elliot Mulenga or how trumped up charges led to the incarceration of Robinson Puta as Nchanga Branch Chairman in his attempt to implement the NRAMWU resolution against the so called All Copperbelt Tribal Council.
African miners with any complaints were required to lodge their grievances through their respective Compound Managers or Personnel Officers. However, the latter had so much discretion that the complainant was totally at his mercy. The Compound Manager could take all the time in the world if he so chose before responding to a complaint. He was also not obliged to pass on the complaint to his superiors. In any case, the complainant knew that there was little or no possibility of appeal from an unfair decision by the Compound Manager. The administration was averse to direct communication with the leadership of the African mineworkers.
For all practical purposes, the administration was not about to legitimise actions and initiatives of "cheeky" African agitators who in their view, were good for nothing.
A way round the communication impasse had to be found and found quickly. From the white man's point of view, whatever solution was to be put in place had to have a built-in mechanism of destroying once and for all, the emerging African mine workers leadership As a point of fact, one enthusiastic white Mine Compound Manager at Roan Mine by the name of Spearpoint had already gone ahead to establish his own Tribal Committee. The idea seems to have had great appeal among the administration. It therefore resulted in Scrivener, a Compound Manger at Rhokana being chosen to set up the All-Copperbelt Tribal Council. In order to give that new institution a certain visible recognition, special gowns resembling those used by traditional chiefs were made for distribution to the members of the All-Copperbelt Tribal Council.
It is worth pointing out also, that all those who were selected to sit on the All-Copperbelt Tribal Council were not genuine traditional leaders. They were not recognised by the people they purported to represent. To add insult to injury, none of the nominees had the blessing or endorsement of the leadership of the African mine workers. Their most important qualification was that they were trusted by the white appointing authorities and could be counted on to do as they were commanded. In other words, they were puppets or "His Master's Voice" in local parlance.
The African mine workers' leaders and a great majority of Africans mine workers were opposed to the All-Copperbelt Tribal Council mechanism. After all, the initiative was designed or calculated to deal a death blow to the African leadership. At the inaugural meeting of the All-Copperbelt Tribal Council on 7th January 1953, the specially designed gowns were distributed to nominees from all four major companies: Roan Mine; Rhokana; Nchanga; Mufulira as well as the perceived representatives of all major ethnic groupings on the mine.
The NRAMWU got wind of this development and decided to table and discuss the issue at its subsequent annual conference. The end result was the adoption of the following resolutions:
" Persuade all employees to whom gowns had been distributed as "tribal" leaders to surrender them to the Compound Managers;
" African Mine Workers branch leaders were mandated to call and prevail upon employees to whom the "tribal" leaders' gowns had been distributed, to denounce the move of forming "tribal councils" as proposed by the companies.
Implementing these resolutions in all the NRAMWU branches proved rather difficult for quite understandable reasons. First, the individuals that had been selected were quite scared of what would befall them were they to follow what was requested of them. For instance, they knew full well, some of the tactics used by the White Compound Managers in obtaining information about so called agitators. These included planting informers or whistleblowers in the African midst. Some were enticed to cook-up allegations against their fellow Africans. It was not surprising that the Nchanga branch chairman, Robinson Puta found himself sooner rather than later in serious trouble! He was arrested on a trumped up charge of threatening violence. Evidence submitted by the prosecution before a Chingola Magistrate Court alleged among other things, that Puta had told a meeting of Africans at a secret place that "If we find out that you are on the side of the Europeans, we shall call a meeting and denounce you".
The nature of things and the way justice was dispensed ensured Puta was found guilty as charged. The court then sentenced him to three months imprisonment with hard labour. Puta's appeal against the sentence at Livingstone was successful but the outcome was the same, as the Governor of the territory intervened to ensure that he nevertheless served his "sentence".
The NRAMWU leadership realised the root cause, there and then, and therefore declared total war on the existence of tribal councils. They demanded that the Companies put the issue to a vote. In their naivet, the Companies agreed to the proposal on condition that the votes cast against the existence of tribal councils would be more than 40% of the entire African labour force. When the vote was taken in March 1953, more than 82.2% of total votes had rejected retention of tribal councils. The struggle for which Puta had gone to prison was won, while the shameless manipulation of the appeal at Livingstone was exposed as a sham.
One of the many problems that strained relations between black and white people in Northern Rhodesia stemmed in part from existing bonds between whites in Northern Rhodesia on the one hand, and the regimes south of the Zambezi River, on the other hand. The mining industry and all commercial activities in Northern Rhodesia were with no exception, offshoots of white South African companies. Racialism in South Africa had already entrenched itself.
Those whites that came into Northern Rhodesia from the south brought with them the same attitudes of racism that South Africa and Rhodesia were known for. In other words, the established system underlined the white-black factor in recruitment, employment conditions and general treatment to which the Africans were subjected. On the mines and in the African compounds, white gangers and compound managers respectively, were selected on the basis of their cruelty and harshness or inhuman treatment of Africans. They seemed to derive great pleasure in ensuring that conditions under which the African worked were as unpleasant as possible.
The absurd notion of a superior race on the one hand, and the inferior race on the other hand, became more pronounced in Northern Rhodesia after the Second World War as a result of immense industrial expansion on the line-of-rail. Economic expansion led to an informal system of guaranteeing jobs for white Northern Rhodesians at the expense of their indigenous counterparts. In the new regime, protection of white economic and political interests was paramount. While the settler community was virtually guaranteed employment, the indigenous community faced stiff competition even for the most menial jobs. This meant that wages for Africans were kept deliberately low. The humiliation suffered in this regard by indigenous Northern Rhodesians at the hands of the "superior race" is well documented.
It is this background that gave birth to Robinson Puta as trade unionist-cum-politician.
As earlier pointed out, the use of race as a policy instrument awakened political consciousness in African mineworkers. These developments coincided with activities of the African Welfare Associations which had already sprung up in a few isolated places. These associations were more political than their names suggested as it was through these associations that political activity was extended to the general African population.
Because of the restrictive atmosphere of the time, Africans typically met in secret to engage in political discourse. Debates in these meetings centred on the issues of racial discrimination and poor working conditions, particularly the very low wages paid to hard working mineworkers. Employers were obviously unaware of these meetings but instead were confident that they controlled all the means of African communication.
It was not unusual for the mining companies and the colonial administration to be completely unaware of genuine African political opinion. Hence the first African mine-workers disturbance and strike at the mining town of Luanshya in 1935 took the authorities by surprise. What added fuel to the fire had been the decision of the Legislative Council to increase the poll tax, totally ignoring the fact that in comparison to white miners, Africans were very poorly paid. It is a common human failing of not wanting to learn from past mistakes.
The principle and effect of that African strike reminds one of the Boston Tea Party of "no taxation without representation". In fact Northern Rhodesia Africans responded to the same social economic imperatives as their American counterparts and took the opportunity impress upon the powers that be, that their labour was indispensable to the smooth operation of the mining industry. It is noteworthy that the Luanshya disturbances and strike were aimed more at the colonial administration than the mining companies.
In a similar manner, the story of stalwarts in any field of human history, in this case, the sons and daughters of Zambia who spearheaded the evolution of Northern Rhodesia to independence, is quite fascinating. It is the sum total of an intricate variety of situations in which activities of the African mineworkers played a very significant role.
Robinson Puta's contribution can be likened to that of a cog in a chain. He was a special cog by virtue of having been involved as stated earlier, in many ground breaking actions that included the extension of the Closed-Shop principle to the African trade union movement. Hitherto, the principle had only applied to the European trade union movement.
Robinson Chisanga Puta also contributed to the attainment of Zambia's independence. Consequently, on the day he was being honoured during the 1966 independence anniversary celebration, the citation stressed his role "as a former mineworkers' leader who had remained a staunch nationalist fighter and even suffered imprisonment".
DEMOCRACY: OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES
The practice of democracy in Zambia during President Kaunda's 27 year rule of the country has sometimes been at odds with established democratic theory. A most striking departure from democratic theory and practice was the insistence by the UNIP government from 1972 that a one party state was nonetheless democratic.
No matter how one looks at democracy, one conclusion is inescapable. Democracy is expensive and individuals committed to the fight for democracy can pay a heavy personal price. This is particularly so if the leadership is both affected and infected by the one-man-rule syndrome. This will also happen where leadership delights in only listening to flattery, to the exclusion of constructive criticism. In less than a decade of Zambia's independence, Robinson Chisanga Puta-Chekwe was to pay a heavy price for agitating for a truer form of democracy than the Kaunda regime was prepared to practise.
Whereas in 1966 Robinson Chisanga Puta was honoured as a gallant soldier in the struggle for independence, in 1972 he was vilified as an enemy of the state. A friend and confidant overnight became an enemy of the country's head of state. He was identified as a hero of the colonial era but condemned in post colonial Zambia for championing the same political cause. In the name of security and self preservation, the principles of democratic governance were thrown out like the baby with the proverbial bath water.
Robinson Puta with Jameson Chapoloko, Justin Chimba and Musonda Chambeshi were among 150 former staunch United National Independence Party cadres detained under the Preservation of Public Security Act, a law inherited from the colonial era. Robinson's immediate crime was to oppose the erosion of democracy and align himself with the country's former Vice President, Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe who had formed an opposition party. Kaunda's former political comrades-in-arms awoke to the realities of African political leadership and to the meaning of one-man-rule. Kaunda began to show signs of not trusting advice from his colleagues, especially those that dared put across contrary views to his own. It was quite clear that any opposition or suggestion for change of direction had to be condemned by all means, at the leadership's disposal.
The 1995 Report of the Human Rights Commission of Inquiry under the chairmanship of Africa Bruce Munyama underlines the changed Zambian political scenario in 1972. It was a travesty of democracy. The report recounts how former colleagues in the UNIP leadership had their human rights violated, including being subjected to an imaginable torture.
Kaunda behaved like a typical dictator. He feared losing power, increasingly enjoyed flattery and took great pleasure dispensing political largesse. He behaved like his former colonial masters when he failed to read the writing on the wall and assumed he could rule his country indefinitely. Kapwepwe and his colleagues committed the cardinal political sin of reminding Zambians that the presidency was not God-given. Rather, it is determined by the people through a free vote preceded by a healthy debate. Consequently, those who, like Robinson Chisanga Puta, supported Simon Kapwepwe's United Progressive Party (UPP) were subjected to imprisonment without charge and in most cases tortured as a way of forcing them to tow the line.
Robinson Chisanga Puta, Jameson Chapoloko, Maybin Mubanga, Fred Ramsey, Godwin Munthali, Alfred Musonda Chambeshi and 19 others were detained at Chipata prison. Other detainees were confined to other prisons across the country. The methods and some of the force used against detainees ranged from "(a) brutal beatings using all sorts of objects, hose-pipes, electric cables, batons and iron bars" to "(w) suspects being suspended between two tables while hanging from an iron bar, this is commonly referred to as 'kampelwa' (swing)". Other forms of torture included (a) blacklisting, (b) harassment of family members, relations, employers or prospective employers, (c) eviction form Council houses and markets, (d) denial of trading licences, and (e) withdrawal of passports.
When Puta was eventually released from detention, it was evident from his physical appearance, and the slow pace at which he walked that he had been subjected to ill treatment while a political prisoner. Other signs of his discomfort included expressions of pain on his face any time he moved any of his limbs. Every one who saw him and had known him prior to incarceration reached the only logical conclusion; Robinson had been subjected to nearly all the above listed inhuman treatments. As if to add insult to injury, Dr. Arnold Chooka, then Special Assistant to former President Dr. Kenneth Kaunda and Mr. Bweendo Mulengela, then UNIP Secretary for Information and Publicity, appeared before the Munyama Human Rights Commission, and with a straight face defended the former President, saying that it was unthinkable that Kaunda could have played any role in this gross violation of human rights. And yet it was Kenneth Kaunda who that had signed the detention orders. Furthermore, the individuals that carried out the torture constantly reported to him, especially some of the information that was extracted from the detainees. Such was the system where covering up for the chief was the rule rather than the exception. Robinson Puta had paid a high price. He, like his prison comrades Justin Chimba, John Chisata and Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe, died prematurely.
WHO SHOULD QUALIFY AS A HERO?
Not every one can be a hero. It is however possible for many to be associated with the heroism of compatriots and acquaintances. Heroism much depends on the events in question and the circumstances. It is also dependent on public perceptions of those events and circumstances. Being a hero does not necessarily entail putting the hero's head on the block. Rather it is a question of the admiration of the individual's achievements and any noble qualities he or she is able to constantly display. The issue of loss of life belongs to martyrdom and should not be considered a necessary condition of heroism. Under colonial rule in Northern Rhodesia, everything as earlier pointed out, was determined by race. It was therefore unlikely for a black person to qualify for inclusion on the official list of heroes. The most a black person could ever hope for was to be awarded an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) and this went mostly to serving civil servants.
One particular graphic example was provided during the second African Mineworkers Union strike by what befell Mr. Elliot Mulenga on 3rd April 1940. Seventeen unarmed Africans were killed and sixty three seriously wounded by shots fired by white-led law enforcement officers. They were shot at by the forces of the regime that later summoned extra white reinforcements from south of the Zambezi River. On that eventful day, Mr. Elliot Mulenga was first shot in the arm, went for dressing at the mine dispensary and when he returned, he was struck with a bayonet, cutting open his bowels and died on the spot. Under normal circumstances, Mr. Elliot Mulenga would have earned inclusion on the heroes' and martyrs' list.
The manner in which Mr. Elliot Mulenga met his death was in as far as the whites were concerned, just one good practical way of intimidating Africans. The message was that there was a price for the foolishness of daring white authorities. Far from frightening the African mineworkers' leadership, however, this brutality served only to strengthen their resolve to fight on for what they believed was a just cause.
Elliot Mulenga's name does not immediately come to mind when we think of heroes. He is nevertheless a hero, albeit an unsung one. What is the difference between acknowledged heroes and unsung heroes? Many heroes, unlike the "unsung heroes", are conspicuous by having structures, roads or avenues, both natural and man-made lakes, airports etc. named after them. Thus, Lawrence Chola Katilungu is a hero and this fact is given official recognition by the fact that the building that houses the headquarters of the Zambia Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU) in Kitwe is named after him. Perhaps one reason why many will continue to be unsung heroes is because there are not enough such structures to go round. In point of fact, several unsung heroes of yesteryears are on the verge of being forgotten. It is incumbent upon scholars and analysts of historical events to take up the challenge of documenting them for posterity the way Professor Musambachime has done with respect to the legendary Mr. Dauti Yamba.
There are many unsung heroes from Zambia's pre-independence era, without whose involvement, the strikes of 1935, 1940 and 1952 would not have succeeded.
Take as one illustrative example, the 1952 general strike by African miners, particularly its very telling lesson for the country, the white business community, and the mining companies as well as on the colonial administration. Credit for its success, including lack of violent incidences that would have resulted in more deaths of Africans, in spite of lasting for nearly three weeks, was due to the mature and determined leadership of the African mine workers. Robinson Chisanga Puta Chekwe played a significant part in ensuring this success. He is truly an unsung Zambian hero.
2. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Barnes & Nobles, Inc., New York, 1994. p.882
3. Jonathan H. Chileshe, Alderman Safeli H. Chileshe: A Tribute to the Man, His Life and History, Mission Press, Ndola, 1998
4. Fergus McPherson, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia: The Times and the Man, Oxford University Press, Nairobi, 1974, pp. 126, 211
5. M. R. Mwendapole, A History of the Trade Union Movement in Zambia up to 1968, University of Zambia Institute of African Studies, Communication No. 13, 1977, p. 9.
6. L. H. Gann, A History of Northern Rhodesia, Chatto and Windus, 1964, p.385.
7. Anthony St. John Wood, Northern Rhodesia: The Human Background, Pall Mall Press, London, 1961, pp. 24 - 29.
8. Henry S. Meebelo, Reaction to Colonialism: A Prelude to the Politics of Independence in Northern Zambia 1893-1939, Institute for African Studies-University of Zambia, Manchester, 1971,pp. 259-261.
9. Simon Zukas, Into Exile and Back, Bookworld Publishers, Lusaka, 2002 pp.135-136.
10. T. D. Weldon, The Vocabulary of Politics, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1955, p.87.
11. Republic of Zambia, Report of the Human Rights Commission of Inquiry, 6th September, 1995.
12. Summary of the Report of the Munyama Human Rights Commission of Inquiry and Government Reaction to the Recommendations, Government Paper No. 2 of 1995, pp.14 - 15.
Dr. Jonathan Hannock Chileshe, was an economist and student of political institutions as well as a man of the world. He authored several books, some of which are used for university course work. This apart, he published papers and lectured at several conferences. He retired from the United Nations after 24 years and thereafter had the rare opportunity of being Chairman of the National Economic Advisory Council of Zambia for nearly a decade.
Dr Chileshe was born on 25 October, 1932 and died on 15 April, 2020.
May His Soul Rest In Peace
I have been asked to comment on my association with the late Robinson Chisanga Puta-Chekwe.
I would start off by saying that Robinson is his own best epitaph and nothing that I can say can add to his stature - indeed it can draw attention away from it; so I will be brief.
I came to Northern Rhodesia after leaving the British Army to help Brian Gardner deal with the appeals, from the convictions in Northern Rhodesia, in the Federal Supreme Court in Salisbury following the Copperbelt riots in 1955. Lloyd Jones and Collins was one of the few law firms willing to act for the appellants. Maurice Conway had no problem with giving the firm's services to whoever needed them - often whether they paid or not. This applied across the board - the firm had quite a number of local Zambian entrepreneurs but apart from Robinson- I am not very good at remembering names - there was a lady with a bus company, I can see one of her buses in my mind's eye to this day. Another name I remember is that of Morton Msichili, an Ndola based butcher.
There were many others whose names I cannot recall. I must have met Robinson on quite a number of occasions and I think it was Tom Mtine, another prominent businessman, with whom I went one day to have lunch with Robinson and his wife. This was my first time to have a truly local meal. It was quite a privilege in those days - though perhaps not everyone saw it that way!
Subsequently, I had many such meals and I remember one in particular after a hunting trip with my great friend Michael Chileshe. Michael was then the District Governor of Ndola.
On my return from London in 1971, I was shocked to find Robinson in detention without trial when I went to Kabwe to see Michael Chileshe. Having read his website I understand a little better now why Robinson had been included in the mass detentions that took place that year.
As I said I went to see Michael - whom I had got to know well whilst he was District Governor in Ndola - he told me something of what had happened to him and the others. I saw cigarette burn scars. I was not very conversant with torture at the time but have become much more familiar with it in my later life with refugee appeals in the United Kingdom. Robinson came along - in his dressing-gown. I recall he was thin and did not look well. I cannot remember what we talked of but their treatment must have been one of the topics.
I was so distraught at what I had seen that I decided to take the matter up with the authorities.
Aaron Milner was Minister for Home Affairs at the time. When I visited him at his home, I found him laid up in bed with - I think - a broken leg. I railed at him for the government's treatment of the detainees. He did not deny the torture but simply said "well you people did the same to us".
Maybe so but that he offered that as an excuse still lives with me now. I cannot remember everything I said to Milner but I did remind him that no one had tortured him.
I don't think I saw much of Robinson after that. Apart from his deteriorating health, there was also the fact that I was now living in Lusaka and when I travelled back to the Copperbelt, I did so as a judge.
One of the photos on the web site shows Robinson's friend, Jimmy Fleming, with the Belgian Consul in 1960. The photograph includes the local District Commissioner Paul Thirsk (on the left). Paul was my cousin. Later he became the Representative for Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland in Salisbury and I was with him when Sir Henry Curtis came for talks that led to the dissolution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
Paul had been a Submarine Commander during the war and afterwards joined the colonial service. After a spell in Nigeria where he got TB, the Colonial Office decided to send him to a more temperate climate - Solwezi in Northern Rhodesia I think! He was married in Chingola, Robinson's adopted home town.
Another photo of particular interest was that of Robinson and his Mineworkers Union colleagues being represented by Jack Dare and Brian Gardner. Jack Dare's granddaughter, Rebecca Zausmer, came to watch how my Tribunal performed one day a couple of years ago.
I have read and looked at the website with fascination. I knew Robinson reasonably well as - unlike Charles Stacey I was allowed to meet him!
Robinson Chisanga Puta Chekwe was deeply respected and highly regarded. It is a great pity we don't have more like him.
Geoffrey Care was a partner in the law firm Lloyd Jones and Collins until the early 1970s. He then became a Judge of the High Court for Zambia. Geoff is currently President of the International Association of Refugee Law Judges, and lives in Bressasy, Shetland, Scotland.
I first met Robison Puta when, together with other officials of the African Mineworkers Union, he came to my house in Luanshya in 1951 to ask for assistance with facts and figures in negotiations which the Union was about to have with the Mining companies on wages. He was a tall figure, spoke good English and appeared self-confident in his ability to face the companies if he had figures of the profits they were making.
Robinson was Vice-president of the Union and Lawrence Katilungu - President. They had both been chosen by the mineworkers for their ability to face up to the white 'compound managers', who were the companies' administrators in charge of the workers' housing, recreational facilities, discipline and even pay.
The African mineworkers included many recent recruits from rural areas who had little education, and even amongst the educated administrative workers there was a lack of self-confidence and experience to negotiate with these managers: it needed tough people and both Katilungu and Robinson were of such calibre. Robinson had early on been sentenced to three months imprisonment for an act to frustrate the companies from continuing to use 'tribal representatives' in lieu of the newly- formed Union as the spokesman for the workers.
Robinson was also active in the African Congress and the campaign against the white-sponsored Central African Federation and took part in a large protest meeting in Chingola. He remained so involved even after Katilungu led the Mineworkers Union away from supporting strike action against imposition of the scheme.
After my deportation Robinson came to see me in London in the mid-fifties but by that time he had left the union and become a businessman, while still involved in the nationalist movement. After Independence, Kaunda recognised Robinson's contribution to achieving independence by giving him an award.
In reorganizing my papers I have come across the following note which I made in the late 1960's and which might be of interest.
"Kapwepwe and Chimba were determined to include in the top echelon only Bembas which were pliable and had conceded leadership to them. Thus Puta and others were left out, with their connivance. It would appear that KK relied on their views. This also applied to the substitution of Mutemba for Chikwanda. Later SK and JC were to regret this because Puta & co started working against them and the UNIP government. Ironically, Puta might have been included in the govt. were it not for SK"
I cannot remember who told me this and it might have been Robinson himself.
Simon Zukas was born in Lithuania but immigrated with his parents to Southern Africa in his early adolescent years.
As a Northern Rhodesian, Zukas identified himself with the cause of social justice as espoused by African nationalists. He was deported from Northern Rhodesia to the United Kingdom in 1952 because he was deemed by the colonial government to be a "danger to peace and good order".
When Zambia attained its independence, Zukas returned home immediately and soon established a civil engineering practice. The public spirited Mr. Zukas served as a director on many sate agencies and corporations as well on the University of Zambia Council.
Douglas G. Anglin
I have been asked to comment on Mr. Puta's association with the founding of the University of Zambia. Although his formal connection as a member of the University Provisional Council was relatively brief, it was not insignificant. Early in 1965, a vacancy occurred on the UPC with the retirement of a businessman from the Copperbelt.
The view was expressed that his replacement should also be a businessman from the Copperbelt. Accordingly, Mr. Puta was appointed in March 1965. Then, following the passage of the University of Zambia Act in November 1965, the UPC was superseded by a new University Council, and Mr. Puta's tenure came to an end.
My recollection is that he experienced some difficulty taking off 4 days or so to travel to Lusaka to attend Council sessions. In addition to running his family business, he was involved in other public enterprises. Perhaps, his most significant contribution to the University was as a member of the UPC's innovative Fund-Raising Committee as well as in personally canvassing for small and large contributions, especially in Chingola.
Douglas Anglin, now Emeritus Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, was the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Zambia.
Charles Anthony Stacey
I recall that Robinson was a bit autocratic and thus probably demanding but I was impressed with the status he received in those difficult pre Independence days and although there was a certain amount of window-dressing I felt his achievements were merited. It can't have been easy working alongside AD McLean [a fellow director of Rhodesia Railways] who, although he mellowed in later life, was a most difficult and bloody-minded individual.
I am ashamed to say that I have a complete gap of the 1962 general election and had never even heard of Robinson's running mate, Tidder until your e-mail. It is a great pity that Robinson's talents were never properly utilised after Independence.
I would add that his progeny do him credit.
Charles Anthony Stacey read English at Cambridge before becoming a solicitor and eventually Senior Partner of Lloyd Jones and Collins in Ndola, Zambia. He was a past president of the Law Association of Zambia. Charles passed away peacefully at his home in Ndola on February 08, 2017. He is survived by his wife Valerie, sons Mark and Hugh, and his daughter Nicola.
Kanoobhai A. Patel
I first heard of Mr. Robinson Puta during the Cha-Cha-Cha days when the nationalist struggle against British colonial rule was at its peak. I was very interested in the struggle because of my own opposition to British rule.
I arrived in Northern Rhodesia from South Africa in 1952. My experiences in South Africa as a brown skinned person of Indian origin were mainly negative. I have one particularly bad memory from 1944 in Johannesburg when I was a primary school pupil. I was returning home from school when a man was run over by a Double Decker bus. The man was very badly injured and he was bleeding quite profusely. A crowd gathered around the man and word quickly spread about the accident. We were all concerned that this man might die. So, we were quite relieved when an ambulance came along and stopped to pick up the injured man. To my shock however the ambulance driver declined his services when he realised that the man was a member of the Bantu race. The ambulance was only for Europeans. The ambulance left the man behind with the advice that another ambulance designated for black people should transport the man to the Baragwanath Hospital which was reserved for Africans. Because of the heavy loss of blood, the man died.
My parents also had bad experiences in South Africa and eventually the family decided to relocate to Northern Rhodesia. In those days all we needed to do to enter Northern Rhodesia was to show that we could read and write English. Upon satisfying the immigration authorities that we could do this, we were accepted as British citizens. I am afraid when I left South Africa I had developed a deep dislike of white people and this dislike only disappeared in the early 1960s.
As a young man with my background, I saw no alternative to supporting the nationalists in Northern Rhodesia. Consequently I joined the freedom movement. Robinson Puta had already established a reputation for himself as someone who got things done and someone who had worked to improve the living standards of black Northern Rhodesians.
At that time the Northern Rhodesian Indian community tended to support the nationalists although a few supported the predominantly white United Federal Party which was born out of colonialism.
When finally Northern Rhodesia attained Independence and was renamed Zambia, I contested one of the seats on the Mufulira Municipal Council and won. Thus I became a councillor. There were other people who had won the election but who had never before served in this capacity.
These colleagues and I were sent to the nearby town of Chingola for orientation. Robinson Puta was one of the people responsible for our training. He had been mayor of Bancroft during the colonial era and had also sat on the African Representative Council.
I found Robinson to have a great personality. He was a well built man who commanded a great deal of respect. We listened attentively as he talked to us about the principles of local government and the responsibilities of councillors. I cannot remember the exact number of days we spent in Chingola but I do recall that we had two sessions a day in the morning and afternoon. We were housed at the Nchanga Hotel in the centre of the town.
One evening Robinson invited all the participants for an evening party at his farm in Musenga, some ten miles south of Chingola. At this party we had an opportunity to meet other dignitaries from Chingola. Robinson and his wife Grace were excellent entertainers and the party lasted late into the night.
At that time Robinson was chairman of his family business. He was also director of a number of large companies including Rhodesia Railways Board and SKF, the Swedish ball bearings manufacturing company. Rhodesia Railways Board was the common railway network for newly independent Zambia and Southern Rhodesia. The future of the system was uncertain now that the two countries had such different governments. In 1965 when the Rhodesian leader Ian Smith declared illegal independence, it was clear that the Zambian railway assets would have to be disengaged from the Rhodesian system and a new railway company created.
In 1967, Kenneth Kaunda asked Robinson to disengage the Zambian assets from the Rhodesian system and to create Zambia Railways Board. Thus Robinson became the Chairman and CEO of Zambia Railways Board. Although Robinson accepted a number of public appointments, it was clear from the late 1960s that he was getting concerned about the erosion of democracy in Zambia.
I was also becoming concerned about certain undemocratic practices. For example, when I attempted to run for a second term as Councillor, Mr. Fines Bulawayo, a Minister of State in the Kaunda government, vetoed my nomination. Mr. Bulawayo had made a public speech criticising Indian participation in Zambian politics. Mr. Bulawayo's comments were not only irresponsible but contradicted the Zambian constitution as well. I was therefore mollified when Alex Chikwanda, a young government official who had recently returned from Sweden where he studied economics, wrote to me assuring me that Zambia would not tolerate discrimination. Chikwanda subsequently became Minister of Finance. Simon Kapwepwe reacted in an even more practical way. He used his powers as Minister of Local Government to appoint me as a Councillor. I knew Kapwepwe quite well and he often visited me when he was in Mufulira. Robinson also knew Kapwepwe. The two had in fact attended the same school at Lubwa Mission in Chinsali.
It was not surprising to me that in 1971 Robinson was identified as one of the people who had decided to support the United Progressive Party formed by the former Vice President and childhood friend of Kenneth Kaunda, Simon Kapwepwe.
The United Progressive Party was officially launched in August 1971. At dawn on September 20, 1971 some eighty prominent people across the country were bundled out of their beds and taken to various detention centres under armed police escort. The detentions were made by order of the president under a law inherited from the colonial era. The Preservation of Public Security Act had been used from time to time in the past by the colonial government to subdue us. Kaunda however had made this most unfair law permanent. Throughout Kaunda's rule any person in Zambia could be arrested indefinitely without charge by order of the president. Persons could also be arrested for a month by a police officer of or above the rank of Assistant Superintendent, without trial.
I was one of the people picked up as a suspected sympathiser of the United Progressive Party. My journey ended at Mukobeko Maximum Prison in Kabwe where I found other detainees. I was the only Zambian of Indian origin. By 7 in the morning I was joined in the prison courtyard by Robinson and other prominent Zambians like John Chisata and Musonda Chambeshi. John Chisata had until recently been junior Minister of Home Affairs. Musonda Chambeshi was an old colleague of Robinson's from the trade union days. He now ran a liquor store in Ndola. It took two prison officers the whole day to register us. We were searched and our money, neckties, papers, shoe laces and belts were confiscated. These items were then placed in envelopes, one for each detainee bearing his name.
September is one of the hottest months in Zambia and we resented being made to stand in line in the open courtyard. Eventually the registration was completed and we were each given an aluminium bowl, a mug and two very cheap and coarse grey blankets. It was now about 6 p.m. and we were marched to another gate that led to an enclosed football ground. After marching about half the distance of the ground, a gate on our left was opened and we were asked to go through that gate. John Chisata, who had served as Minister of State for Home Affairs and had visited prisons as part of his responsibilities, told us that were now approaching the cell for condemned prisoners. The building for death row inmates was a double storey structure with a court yard in the centre and small cells around it. The building was closely guarded. We were made to sit in the courtyard and it was then that Mr. Chisata told the prison warden that he wanted to see the Officer-In-Charge. When the Officer-In-Charge arrived, Mr. Chisata asked him how he could keep us hungry and thirsty the whole day. The OIC apologised and explained that food was served at 3:30 in the afternoon. He also said he would check to see if any food had been left over. He did find some food but it was not enough for the crowd. In Zambia there is a tradition of sharing food, so we simply divided this food among us. Unfortunately I could not partake because I was then (as I am now) a vegetarian. The food consisted of crudely prepared Nshima (thick corn porridge with the texture of mashed potato) and a lump of meat. I was relieved however to have some water to drink. I spent three and a half days at Mukobeko without food. Despite telling the authorities that I was a vegetarian they insisted on bringing me Nshima and meat.
While we were in the court yard, we watched the prison warders removing the condemned prisoners from their cells on the upper floor of the building and taking them outside to use the toilets and wash themselves. These prisoners were kept in their cells naked, being obliged to leave all their clothing by the door to the cell. The only thing they could take inside the cell was a bowl of water. The prisoners could not re-enter the cells without an inspection. The condemned prisoners only had thirty minutes within which to wash themselves, exercise and use the toilet. The lights in their cells were controlled from outside. These lights were switched off precisely at 9 p.m.
Our observation of the condemned building and its inhabitants came to an abrupt end when the gates opened and a few officers came in and asked us to stand in line. We all stood up and formed a line. An officer however came to me and pulled me out of the queue. I asked why he had done this and reminded him that my colleagues and I had been brought to Mukobeko together. His impolite response was that I was now in prison and not entitled to ask questions. I was quite puzzled by this.
Subsequently I learnt that Robinson and the others had been taken to Mpima State Prison within the same District. Mpima did not have a brick wall for a perimeter. Instead it had a wire perimeter. For this reason it was considered an 'open' prison.
I was allocated a cell that was filthy and had human waste in it. I had many sad thoughts in my lonely hours in that cell. Somehow I could accept oppression from the colonialists but I could not accept oppression from our own government.
I spent six months in detention. I was never formally charged but I had been accused administratively of plotting the overthrow of Kenneth Kaunda's government. Needless to say, I was never tried.
About three months after my release, Robinson Puta was also released. I was very happy to hear this. Robinson's health had deteriorated in prison and after his release he became less visible as a public figure.
I regret that Zambia has not done more to honour this great figure. Robinson believed in democracy and justice. I feel privileged to have known him.
Kanoobhai Patel was a well known civic and business leader on the Zambian Copperbelt. He ran a successful business in Mufulira, Zambia, where he then lived. He now resides in Mississauga, Canada.
T M D Mtine, OGDS
I have very fond memories of Robinson Chisanga Puta Chekwe who was at one and the same time a friend, compatriot, and business colleague and, at the end of it all, he was like a brother to me.
It was perhaps inevitable that Robinson and I would be spoken of in the same breath. We both used our early jobs after school as training grounds for our own enterprises. Robinson worked as a clerk in the mining company while I worked as an Inspector of Cooperatives for the Department of Cooperative Societies. We both learnt our work quickly but declined to remain in our positions because we considered at the time, the working conditions to be unjust.
While I tried my hand at running commercial agencies, Robinson tried his as a broker in the fishing industry. He reckoned that there was quick money to be made in buying fish at source and selling on the lucrative Copperbelt market. Robinson's calculation was right. In a relatively short period of time he made enough money to start a shop of his own in Bancroft, now called Chililabombwe. By 1960, Robinson was able to establish the first super market in Lubengele Township (Bancorft).
In the meantime Robinson and I were emboldened by our success and began to take interest in governance issues. Although we avoided national leadership positions in the nationalist movement, we nevertheless were happy to finance the movement in one way or another. We also participated in the Copperbelt African Representative Council, which at the time debated issues of national importance with a view to giving advice to Her Majesty's Government. Subsequently we both fought elections on behalf of the United National Independence Party, led by our childhood friend Kenneth Kaunda.
Robinson served as mayor (at that time called, Chairman of the Management Board) of Bancroft in the early 60s and was still mayor on Independence Day. I was mayor of Ndola from 1964 to 1966.
It is a marvel to me how we managed to do all the things we did. Although we had a political profile, we regarded ourselves essentially as businessmen. I thought Robinson was a particularly skilful businessman. At a time when opportunities for Africans were extremely limited, he took advantage of bylaws that permitted businessmen to be established in African areas and used that as the basis of his commercial success.
The high profiles we enjoyed and our history of success in business made us valuable commodities in the business world. On the eve of Zambian Independence, I was chairman or director of eight major commercial undertakings and a member of a number of charitable organisations. Robinson was director of many companies including Katata Breweries Limited and Rhodesia Railways Board, in addition to being Chairman of his expanded family business. He was also President of the Northern Rhodesia Traders Association. For our trouble we had the dubious distinction of being the first Africans to become eligible to pay super tax!
The story of Katata Breweries comes to mind. A company called Heinrich's Syndicate, of which I was Public Relations Officer and later became director, dominated the opaque beer industry in Northern Rhodesia for most of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The Company's Secretary in the late 1950s was a Mr. Hargreaves. Hargreaves left and persuaded Robinson to set up a rival company in Luanshya. That company was called Katata Breweries Limited. Katata was initially quite successful but in the long term could not compete effectively against Heinrich's. The end result was that Katata was taken over by Heinrich's Syndicate. Thus Robinson joined me on the Board of Heinrich's Syndicate.
The business world of Northern Rhodesia was mostly a white world. African businessmen like Robinson, Safeli Chileshe, I and a few others were therefore, anomalies at that time. The typical white Northern Rhodesian was at that time comfortable with the assumption that people with dark brown complexions could never be the equal of pink skinned humans. By our behaviour, Robinson and I disabused Whites of this notion. Through our actions the white business world began to see that Africans could be just as talented as they were. In my view, this realisation helped one way or another to break down the famous Northern Rhodesia colour bar.
We were of course hurt by racism from time to time. This led to impatience on our part when we encountered racial discrimination. I recall once telling a white reporter that I had run into discrimination. I continued, "It does not worry me. When a person is stupid, and people who try and discriminate are stupid, he is stupid irrespective of race."
Furthermore, I wish to state that, while Robinson worked as a clerk in the Mines in Chingola, he joined the struggle for African Advancement as a Founder Member of the powerful African Mineworker's Union in March, 1949, which was led by the late Lawrence Chola Katilungu. By 1952, Robinson was Chairman of the Nchanga A M U Branch and General Vice President of A M U and was at the time Vice President of Northern Rhodesia Trade Union Congress (NRTUC). I remember Robinson as a true nationalist who did not subscribe to tribal sentiments; he respected all fellow Zambians irrespective of where they came from. Copperbelt was and still remains 'a rainbow' Province in Zambia. To emphasize the point, it is a cosmopolitan province. This noble idea we both shared and it helped us build our leadership in our respective fields. I in sport and civic life and Robinson in trade union and civic life - both converging on business life and it is from our successful business exploits that we both supported the freedom struggle materially and otherwise.
Robinson Chisanga Puta Chekwe was a principled entrepreneur who used his talents to better himself and advance the interests of his country. I miss him dearly.
Tom Mtine is one of Zambia's best known and respected businessmen. Over the years, Mr Mtine has served as a director of many companies. He is perhaps best known internationally for his roles as Managing Director and Chairman of Lonrho Zambia Ltd. As a civic leader, Tom Mtine has impressive credentials. He served as a member of the then Ndola Urban Council from 1953 to 1958. In 1960 he was nominated by the Governor In Council as a Councillor of Ndola Municipal Council. In 1964 he was elected Mayor of Ndola. He served in that capacity for two years.
Tom Mtine is also associated with the promotion of sport, especially football (soccer), in Zambia. He is a former Chairman of the National Football League of Zambia and the Football Association of Zambia. He is currently an honorary member of the Confederation of African Football.
Tom Mtine lives in Ndola on the Zambian Copperbelt.