Revisiting the Learnmore Jongwe tragedy: Hero or villain and the inconvenient truth?

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“Conditions” in a marriage have to be unimaginably horrendous for quite some time before a man of Learnmore Jongwe’s social station inexorably gravitates towards a point where he feels the urge to exact savage, brute and ruthless violence towards his wife, Rutendo Muusha, which ultimately fells her and extinguishes her flame of life.
This is the sensational news that Zimbabweans woke up to on 20 July 2002 leading to an overwhelming sense of shock and melancholy enveloping the whole country, including across the political divide, notwithstanding the apparent and understandable glee that some of his political opponents felt.
The narrative that was put forward by Jongwe and his Lawyer Samkange (and taken up by the “Independent Press”) following the harrowing events of that day is now so indelibly woven into the nation’s psyche that I had virtually given up on sharing a perspective of “contra-events” that I know and have quietly and steadfastly held onto for many years notwithstanding the relentlessness with which it has gnawed at my conscience.
This remained the case until I saw Lance Guma’s Facebook post on his “wall” commenting on the late “Warlord” Lawrence Chakaredza and Learnmore Jongwe. I went on to reply to his post and proceeded to write my own on the subject, with a view towards providing an alternative narrative, albeit almost irredeemably belated. In the end, I have received a tremendous amount of responses from various sections – including my own UZ Law School classmates and colleagues in the profession, with some of them, for understandable reasons, choosing to send private messages to express solidarity.
They also encouraged me to accept the requests that I received from Journalists to publish my post as an article, as they felt that it was in the public interest that this matter be revisited. Ultimately, whatever reservations I had about publishing (particularly professional ones) were swept away once I had become convinced that I was pursuing a cause of tremendous historical and social importance particularly in the context of modern Zimbabwean political and social discourse.
For reasons I am unable to adequately decipher, that post, more than those before it, stirred something from within that I have hitherto felt the urge to talk about and struggled to contain for a very long time. I am however, inclined to speculate that this may be attributable to feelings of guilt arising from a subconscious decision to embrace the convenient wall of silence that I and my colleagues have been engulfed in from the moment of Rutendo’s death till now.Advertisement

I somehow feel that we felt defeated when we read headlines and lurid details of Rutendo’s apparent indiscretions and references to her being a “sleeper” member of the CIO from The Standard on one hand, and equally visceral criticism of Learnmore Jongwe from The Herald on the other while camped at a Harare address where she was being mourned, on the eve of graduation. I suppose we felt that the tools at our disposal were too blunt to engage with the tussle between the political gladiators in Rome’s proverbial Colosseum and chose to get on with our lives.
It is not in doubt that Jongwe’s death in custody and the circumstances surrounding his incarceration present one of the most controversial and heated episodes in post-independent Zimbabwe. Most tragic in all this is the fact that the whole issue became politicised and irreparably soiled the dignity of Rutendo Muusha, Jongwe’s wife.
I do not claim a monopoly of the facts, but I will say what I know and feel, from my perspective. Well, in any event, if anyone develops an emotional or psychological wound (or both, or more), from reading this, or there is unimaginable opprobrium, I am consoled by the fact that our combined mortality will wash all that away – and I have at least tried to broach a subject that is considered almost taboo or heresy and attempted to give a voice to a colleague who died in tragic circumstances.
Fate and the arch of life meant that Rutendo and I were classmates at the UZ’s Law School. We were meant to start in Feb ’98 but our start date was deferred to Feb ’99 owing to the violent Student demos which had plagued the Institution at the time. When we started Law School, owing to the delay, we were itching to get on with things. Learnmore was in his Final Year.
I first met him at the Law School Library during the first few weeks of my arrival when I was struggling with research on a Criminal Law problem type question we had been given by Prof Geoff Feltoe. We were all starry eyed – and there was a bunch of us sitting in the corner. The question touched on – at the time very strange Latin / Roman and Dutch legal concepts. Jongwe stepped in and offered some help. Rutendo was amongst some of the beneficiaries.
In the end, she was dazzled and succumbed to Jongwe’s charms. She did not stand a chance as the likes of Jongwe, “Wiwa”, “Dombo”, Mguni, “Agenda” and others were pretty much high profile celebrities. We would see them on telly during a then ZTV programme called “Around Zimbabwe” and they also dominated the major papers of the day. The UZ was a different place then. It had a certain enchanting vibe and aura/reverence about it – and was populated with elite Lecturers, Students and larger than life characters.
The famous “October 4” bar was still open at the Students Union Building before Minister Chombo unfairly and unilaterally closed it, with UBAs (male Students) imbibing “daily” and “passing annually” as they would say (I know it now sounds “corny” as they say over here). It was also a regular occurrence to see disoriented strange looking older women smeared in distinctive red lipstick on Sunday mornings pacing up corridors of Manfred Hodgson and New Complex 5 (or “Baghdad” as it was known) Halls of Residence, having been “imported” from Tereskane or Bira Bar as it was known then, or other such “unholy” places and conned by UBAs into waiting in vain for them to return with pecuniary “compensation”.
It was a real privilege – we had the Pearson Nhereras of the world, the Kempton Makamures (“Cde” as we affectionately called him), Prof Welshman Ncube, Dr Madhuku, Prof Geoff Feltoe and others. The next we heard after that was that Rutendo was now a frequent visitor to “New Hall” – which was the UZ’s grandest hall of residence with an en suite shower and other facilities and mainly preserved for Foreign Students, Final Year Students and the SRC and SEC leadership, (the UZ Student leadership), where Jongwe lived.
Just like a lot of my colleagues at the Faculty, I went on to have a very cordial relationship with Jongwe that continued well after he left Uni. It was impossible not to as he was funny, highly intelligent, easy going, (had) a sense of presence and (was) highly engaging. What’s more, there were infectious “adumbrations” at the Students Clinic gathering platform overlooking the Swinton Hall of Residence Grounds perched on a lop sided gradient which is wonderful for ambience and the radiation of “energy” amongst the audience and with the speaker. The place heaved with testosterone fuelled “UBAs” which Jongwe et al seized on to masterfully whip into a frenzy whilst exhorting them to demonstrate for their sacred “payout” with the clarion call “Ahoy Union!”
From the beginning, Jongwe and I always called each other “Kule”. I think it’s the equivalent of “Jahman” in these dancehall days! As we went through the academic journey, Jongwe and Rutendo’s relationship became serious. At around the same time, one of her friends started going out with one of Jongwe’s long-time friends. They went on to get married. I believe it unfair to mention his name but he is certainly a political player of note in Zim’s political arena and seems like a really good person. Furthermore, I have no reason to believe that the marriage is not a happy and fulfilling one.
Being the young man I was at the time – the ‘in thing’ was to frequent the cream de la cream of the clubs of the time, one of which was “Circus” at Strathaven in Avondale, Harare. I vividly remember seeing Jongwe and Rutendo there on several occasions. I saw a most peculiar sight I must say. So Rutendo would be clad in “paddle pushers” or “hipster jeans” with a “spaghetti top” etc. and “Kule” would have a certain kind of attire which was most incongruous, vis-a-vis the occasion. I can vividly remember on one night he was wearing a “heavy bomber” jacket, of a green khakhi like variety.
Even more awkwardly, he did not drink, smoke or dance, so he would sometimes be standing  in a corner being an “observer” while Rutendo was getting down to the R’n’B and Hip Hop beats of the day – the Sisqos, Dr Dres, Tupacs, Donell Jones, Genuwines, SWVs & Blacksreets of the day. I might be wrong, but it did not strike me as being the genre of music that “Kule” was likely to identify with. With the passage of time, we started getting specific “intelligence” concerning developments in the relationship. By “we”, I mean us her classmates.
I will not say anything specific at this point, but I will say that before her death shortly before we graduated in July 2002, there had been several other very serious, violent episodes perpetrated on Rutendo with very specific, horrendous, visible injuries. There were also specific threats made on her life – including references to the use of a knife for that purpose. In addition to this, we are also aware that she had initially declined to participate in the marriage ceremony which eventually took place at the UZ’s Great Hall – and that this only eventually proceeded after very desperate, protracted and delicate intervention efforts by very senior people in the MDC.
What is clear to me is that “Kule” and Rutendo were incompatible to a very high degree. There are lessons to be learnt by many people venturing into relationships or marriage. The latter was in my view beguiled by his stature while the former was enchanted by her beauty. They both allowed themselves to be “clouded” in their judgment and persisted with what was a doomed relationship right from the word go.
There are “circumstances of birth”, arising from their backgrounds which shaped their worlds and set them on divergent paths, perhaps well before they had met. By the time that Jongwe perpetrated the now infamous acts of violence which Rutendo fatefully and tragically succumbed to, their marriage was virtually comatose. What is painful to me about the whole episode is that, through the politicisation of their deaths, the truth has become a casualty.
The reality is simply that because of who Learnmore Jongwe had become to a long suffering population struggling to remove the yoke of Zanu PF’s brutal, repressive rule, it could not be possible that he could be seen as anything but an indefatigable hero of the opposition movement, not even a flawed one! In essence, at that juncture, what was simply an incident of barbaric domestic violence became a national political tragedy.
It could not and still cannot be countenanced or fathomed that Jongwe could be loving, intelligent, eloquent, articulate, funny and a wonderful human being and still retain a dark side to him that would ultimately bring him down. Those who have studied Literature to a high degree are particularly aware of this phenomenon, what I call the “3D phenomenon”, or (three dimension) – ie, that virtually every person has got more than one dimension to their character. Very few people are able to discern this, and in some marriages or relationships some naive spouses go to their grave without unearthing this dynamic!
In short, if you are not discerning enough, you will be apportioned a chunk of the “complimentary size” that is perceived to be commensurate with the peripheral limits of your “horizon”. This is particularly true of public actors / performers – as they are often forced by circumstances to assume a persona that best fits a particular narrative in a given situation – but virtually any person can deploy/employ/assume such shenanigans if they are so inclined. But it is equally true of the lesser mortals!
Domestic violence is a condition “sui generis”. It’s in a league of its own and can affect the most “respectable” amongst us because it is grounded in “human emotion” or what I call the “human condition”. From the outside, Jongwe had everything going for him, a brilliant legal career, reaching the apex of politics at a young age, and an equally beautiful young wife and daughter. Yet beneath that facade, there was a dark sense of insecurity and paranoia arising from having married a woman with values that clashed with his own – which he was ultimately unable or unwilling to reconcile with.
It’s not as if – if one has got such a disposition he/she would publicly wave it around – Neville Chamberlain style! In my experience, this happens privately, with a lot of the victims suffering silently (and I have met many of them in my profession). What’s more, the perpetrators are usually quite crafty, they often cajole their victims in one way or another and succeed in stopping them from disclosing this to the public. It is regrettable that in the end, to “rescue” his “honour” and provide a credible narrative to justify his actions to a shell-shocked nation, Jongwe chose to spin a most inaccurate tale concerning how he had come to commit the dastardly act.
This is where I lost all respect for him (even accounting for desperation arising from the instinct for self-preservation) as his actions meant that: 1) an innocent young woman had lost her life – and he had fled from the scene leaving her hapless, helpless and virtually prostrated; 2) he was showing no sense of remorse/contrition or assuming responsibility; 3) his narrative meant that her dignity was impaired before the whole nation, (and by association that of their daughter); 4) the consequences of this contrived narrative tormented her parents, other relatives and friends and denied them closure and healing and, 5) he selfishly impaired the dignity of a fellow innocent colleague in the profession by falsely accusing him of committing adultery with his wife.
Zimbabweans must accept that it is possible to be rightly critical of Zanu PF’s misrule whilst also introspecting and acknowledging the shortcomings of those that they look up to. Accepting Jongwe’s shortcomings does not mean endorsement of Zanu PF’s misgovernance. It also does not take away his other attributes. In other words, it is possible to acknowledge his many redeeming and positive attributes, including his unimpeachable role in shaping modern Zimbabwe’s recent political history and discourse whilst also accepting the gravity of the offence that he committed.
It is also possible to accept that the regime took advantage (as would rightly be expected) of his self-inflicted predicament without the need to bring Rutendo’s name into the picture. In the end, if anything, he was denied bail several times (rightly or wrongly), and in those judgments, Godfrey Chidyausiku, the Chief Justice, virtually made it clear that, (barring the unexpected), he would ultimately be convicted – a development which would clearly have been greatly welcomed by Zanu PF, (as it would afford them an opportunity to be triumphant and humiliate him and the MDC ad naseuam/in perpetuity) which Jongwe’s death deprived them of. The psychological impact of those court decisions on Jongwe’s physical and moral/mental integrity cannot be downplayed.
Ultimately, I have been hesitant to tell Rutendo Muusha’s story for a very long time – out of fear of being labelled a Zanu PF apologist because of Learnmore Jongwe’s hallowed position in opposition politics and also because I was torn between appearing to condemn him (within the context of our small and insular legal profession), and betraying Rutendo or both, if that makes sense. It is an emotional and psychological conflict of some magnitude and the whole concept actually gives the impression of being the equivalent of committing some sort of blasphemy.
However, if I give in to such concerns what will be left of society if those of us lucky enough to be called to serve justice dread dabbling in controversial and passionately held social, political and economic issues of the day? Admittedly, when writing or commenting on such issues, one has to take a long term approach to the subject and look at the bigger picture, particularly in this social media dominated era where there is a fragile and mortal susceptibility to being verbally “accosted” and “stabbed” in the dark “Isis” style, by a cabal of merciless and uncompromising cyber keyboard “warriors” launching their sporadic or sustained attacks incognito, ever so grateful of the protective veil that anonymity accords them!
Even in writing this long article, I have barely touched the whole story, but it is a matter for another day … and it will be told in greater detail one day. Rutendo Muusha must have a voice. She must be mourned with dignity. Her tragic role as a victim of domestic violence at Learnmore Jongwe’s hands must not be buried under the false rubric of attributing Jongwe’s death to Zanu PF. Even in such a poisoned, contested and vicious political environment, the truth should prevail.
 It is only in a poisoned environment that it can be accepted as being credible that a person can arrive at a Law Firm, bypass the Reception, rumble a spouse and a Lawyer who happen to have recklessly embarked upon such a course in such a lax way and show such incredible restraint at first instance, at the scene, before succumbing to provocation of a comparatively lesser degree at the family home a while later.
But this also does not mean that Learnmore Jongwe should not be mourned by those with such a disposition. It only means that they have to do so honestly, embracing his brilliance as a skilled legal and political operator of a very rare breed whilst juxtaposing this with his obsessive, controlling and violent tendencies.
Ultimately, it follows that only by looking at ourselves in the mirror do we come to terms with who we truly are, and only then can we learn from our mistakes. It is worth highlighting that, if we continue to worship our flawed heroes without honestly acknowledging their mistakes, we risk repeating the same mistakes over and over again, making our fortunes hostage to our past!
Brighton Mutebuka is a Lawyer based in the UK. He writes this article in his personal capacity. Copyright protected. © 2015.