Robert Mukondiwa recently in PRETORIA, South Africa
It is midnight in a glamorous well-kept office building in the heart of a bright treading estate-like area. It could be anywhere — Zurich, Manchester, London, Bogota.
But it is Pretoria, South Africa. A man sits comfortably waiting for his next meeting. An interview which shall be prying and a marathon. The first time he will speak about a very dramatic event that has occurred in his life which has changed his standing forever.
A vicious businessman who is a go-getter, his warmer, calmer softer side — as the hues on his midnight pink tie he is wearing — was called into action most recently as he had to open his doors to host one of Zimbabwe’s exiles.
The fugitive is now Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The host, who hosted the “felon”, is Gwanda-born South Africa-based businessman Mr Justice Maphosa.
Until he was put in the spotlight by ED, as the President is called, and thanked publicly for having played host to him, Maphosa was an unassuming person who would rather have played business than politics until he was called upon to help.
He has never recounted his story to the media. But in an exclusive two-day marathon event, he opened up shedding important light into the two-week period that he hosted ED in the warmth, safety and comfort of his own house. But why did he do it? Endangering his own family, his business and heaven knows who or what else?
“If I didn’t, then who would?” he responded.
“I got the call and I had to answer it. I feel that God put me in that spot and I was supposed to answer the calling that God had given me,” said the practising Christian Maphosa. He is known for hosting the hugely successful Gwanda Gospel Music Festival and many other philanthropic events that he answers when his God calls upon his name.
“If I couldn’t answer the call to help a fellow Zimbabwean then what sort of person would I be? Actually, I did not do this. I did not host the President. In fact, God positioned me to be in the right time to receive that call at the right time and our President to make it to me at the right time. I was given the right tools to help and that is how it happened,” he said.
While many would go onto the summit of the mountain and shout that they are owed the gift of life no less by a sitting president, Maphosa is modest and had to be dragged out of a hole by the President for his story to be known as the hand of help in exile.
Maphosa remembers when he got the call. Having followed events unfold from November 6 when erstwhile president Robert Gabriel Mugabe ejected Cde Mnangagwa from the office of Vice President, ED went into self-imposed exile after receiving word that his life was in danger. The fired VP had left the country with one of his sons, Emmerson Junior.
“I received the call from Emmerson. They were in the middle of nowhere and needed help. He said to me father is seeking refuge. I did not think twice. I answered the call,” he said.
Armed with his well-organised network, Maphosa safely had President Mnangagwa and his son in his household, having answered the lone call from the wilderness by someone in need.
Much as the biblical Joseph had been sold off by his own into a foreign land and needed refuge, Maphosa’s home was that place of refuge when he was needed the most.
While he always tells his wife and best friend, Vanessa, about almost everything, the high security nature of this operation meant that he couldn’t even repeat word that ED was headed to his homestead. Not even to himself!
In a marathon interview, his wife, a dainty sharp, elegant and motherly woman, recounted her shock at the man she saw at her doorstep.
“It came as a surprise to me, although I had been following the whole story,” she said.
But harbouring a Zimbabwean fugitive from the State didn’t scare them for their own sake. In typical Maphosa family tradition, they were more worried about the person they were hosting rather than the security of their own family.
“It was quite scary (hosting him) because had anything happened to him while we were hosting him it would look like something that we had planned maybe,” says Mrs Maphosa reminiscing.
However, if they thought they were supposed to fete their guest, the Maphosas got a pleasant surprise.
Despite being a president-in-waiting as Zimbabwe was going topsy-turvy, he did not come across as a powerful person amongst them. Quite the contrary.
“He was very humble. Much like a father figure. As a person who doesn’t have a (living) father myself I felt close to him and he came across as a father figure. We bonded well and far from the scary superhuman picture we have of leadership, he in fact was an amazing father, educating me during our days together,” says Maphosa.
The humble guest also proved to be very modest and down to earth with his choice of preferred foods. Maphosa and his new found father would eat together and use their hands to eat, much like a long-lost father meeting his long lost son.
“His favourite was goat meat. We would have pap (sadza) and goat meat and use our hands just like an ordinary family. He would tell stories and we would giggle as any family would. I learnt a lot from his time with me as a son and as a person,” says Maphosa.
And after rumours in Zimbabwe of him having been poisoned, there is something that is interesting with Maphosa’s reminiscence. After having been wary of all the food he had to consume, ED was happy to eat up and work up an appetite at the home of his host and “son” knowing he was safe and loved.
And he ate heartily.
“He’s not a man from Mars. He and I would eat a lot. We would eat our meal then go for seconds. And thirds. And fourths!” says Maphosa his face lighting up with glints and sparkles of fond reminiscence.
But much as the guest was happy and safe, there were days, Maphosa recounts, when he would be lost in his own thoughts. Pondering. Wilting inside.
Maphosa knew what it was. A worry and contemplation of where the rest of his family was. Whether they were safe. Whether they would ever meet. Exile is not a university module whose length is known. And while we now know that it lasted not too long, in the midst of that day, that hour, no one knew what the future held.
“I love my wife and family. If anyone took them away from me for a day without me knowing how things would pan out I would die. He is a loving family man and I was at the receiving end of that love as a son would be loved. So I know he yearned for that love and safety for his family and I understood why he would often be withdrawn,” said Maphosa.
And yet the Maphosas did everything to turn this “monarch of democracy” into a civilian like everyone else. The solution?
“We even took him for some Burger King. It was the first time for me to eat Burger King with him because we wanted to introduce him to our everyday norms here in South Africa,” says Maphosa.
Little did they know that he would leave the Burger King and assume the “throne” in Zimbabwe, to also reign above his kith and kin and offer a new hope for Zimbabweans under a new leadership structure.
While he hosted the President, Maphosa did the unthinkable and it strengthened their relationship. He challenged his host on the governance of Zimbabwe and some of the things his Government and by default, he too, were responsible for before the turn of events. The response was magical.
“When I called him out on those things relating to investment and where Government policy had gone wrong, he smiled. He listened. Didn’t argue. And then he asked me to advise him on where they had gone wrong, asking that we the young business elite should educate them when they go wrong. He said to me ‘we are not perfect and we do not know it all, continue to guide us’ and I said wow. I was humbled. He is s good listener,” recounts Maphosa.
He was the people’s voice to Mnangagwa and Mnangagwa listened.
“Not many leaders have that humility to listen to someone small like me,” he says.
And all that time his guest would wear slippers and regular pants and yawn and smile and play with the kids like a normal grandfather and father. ED was human.
There was the inevitable “Asante sana” moment. Where the guest had to say thank you and goodbye to his hosts. The President was called upon by his party to return to Zimbabwe and assume authority at the helm and back to Zimbabwe he had to travel.
“I was touched because I had made a father. But I was happy to release him because I knew Zimbabwe had gained a father figure from my loss. I love Zimbabwe and I want these things like this office that I built here to have been in Zimbabwe at least. I would always want to develop my country ahead of another so we are not happy here. And because there was someone coming into leadership who understood us meant that I knew Zimbabwe was rising, thanks to my letting this man go,” says Maphosa.
The room dies. Goes quiet. The sound of the air conditioner breathing slowly into the room and perhaps our heartbeats are all that can be heard. He is caught in that moment again. In the silence you can almost hear his heart break. Here was a man who had made a father, a friend, a leader whom he had painted onto his heart who he was suddenly expected to let go of.
Suddenly he smiles;
“I haven’t told you anything of the whole story. It is a story that belongs to two people. Me and him. He will tell you the rest of his story. You are the journalists and you should go to Harare and seek him out. He will tell you some of the personal things I cannot reveal about his stay,” says Maphosa.
I am numb. I don’t have the President on speed dial and certainly knocking on a door at State House may not be that simple. Still there is hope because Maphosa promises that story will come soon.
“Apart from that though, you can read the whole story soon. The President and I are planning on writing a book about that,” he says. I heave a sigh of relief.
Finally, the rest of the story shall be told and the nation will know.
Maphosa acknowledges that he may not be popular today because of what he did but he did what every “normal” Zimbabwean would have done. “I know people will try to smear me but my conscience is clear and I am happy to have helped the President,” he says
“If Robert Junior or Chatunga had called requesting the same for erstwhile President Mugabe would you have helped?”
“Yes”, he answers emphatically. “It is our duty to help our kith and kin – as Zimbabweans – regardless of our differences. We are all Zimbabweans. We are brothers and sisters!” he said.
A few days later, I get a farewell call from the gentle giant that is Maphosa. I am at OR Tambo headed for Robert Mugabe International Airport and the call comes through the liaison who has been babysitting me through my interview process, Mthokozisi Ndlovu, erroneously called Mtokozisi by our Registrar-General.
“I would like us to do dinner when I land in Harare,” a pleasant voice says. I oblige. Perhaps there he will tell me the rest of the story and the father-son bits in greater detail. Perhaps not.
Either way, it is evident that this man was the best person given the task of looking after ED when everyone else closed their doors on him.
Back in Harare, I ask a crucial question that I had omitted and dangerously so. It could be the difference between apocalypse and world peace.
“Did you offer the President ice-cream when he was in South Africa and did he eat it?”
Maphosa responds, I imagine with his trademark glint in the eye;
“We had ice-cream for dessert with the President several times. He eats ice-cream!” he says.
So that settles it! That’s the alpha and omega of that story!