Simon Zukas, a kind and principled freedom fighter
There are people in one’s life who are so important and yet so much woven into the fabric of that life that you take them for granted. This is true even of the people in our families, parents, siblings and also spouses. There comes a sudden moment when you realise that you love a person and need them in your life but in reality, you don’t know a great deal about them. Simon Zukas was significant in every important aspect of my life, but I didn’t know it fully until I found myself crying hopelessly at the news of his death on Monday morning, 27th September.
Why does Simon matter so much to me? We were linked from our first meeting. We met through mutual friends in Zambia as well as work, engineering, politics and art. Mike, my husband, was Jewish and that was a very important initial connection. Neither Mike nor Simon were observant Jews but both cared deeply about the Jewish community and its survival and continuance. I, Rhodesian-born, a student at the art school in Cape Town and a political activist, had found help and friendship and political mentors among Jewish friends at school and later among Jewish ANC exiles in London. After 1972, life in Zambia, independent for 8 years, seemed to me like coming home to family. I was with people who believed in independence and equality for Africans and among those who supported religious freedom and creativity.
Simon Zukas goes to prison in 1952
I was nine and at primary school in Southern Rhodesia when Simon went to prison. I didn’t hear about him until I arrived in Zambia. Among white Rhodesians, my parents were relatively liberal, but wanted security and thought that the Central African Federation would provide it. They were also poor, so I was fortunate enough to be educated at university during the CAF’s brief existence. That made some of my generation progressives, but not powerful enough to change the direction of racism and apartheid in southern Africa. Many of us left or were exiled when Ian Smith declared UDI to maintain white power.
Simon Zukas, a wise politician
In Zambia, after Independence, economic power and control of its mines were concentrated in the hands of South African whites and settlers who held racist views. The wars of liberation had begun. The new Zambian government under Kenneth Kaunda had a difficult birth.
In this environment, Simon Zukas was a unique figure and a wise politician. Soon Zambia would be heavily involved as one of the Frontline States who paid a heavy price for their involvement in the war against apartheid.
There are excellent obituaries of Simon Zukas particularly this one by Sishuwa Sishuwa but not all explain how extraordinary his moral principles were, given the universal background of racism he faced. Simon has written his autobiography titled Into Exile and Back. Hugh Macmillan’s book Zion in Africa is a key history book for Zambia and the whole of Southern Africa.
In 1972 I was desperate to return home to Africa but chose to go to Zambia so that my oldest multi-ethnic daughter would not face segregated education in Rhodesia. Mike, my husband, found work on the Kariba North Bank Power Station. At once we found freedom fighters and landmines around us and the borders closed. Mike and I moved to Lusaka and our friendship with Simon and Cynthia began.
They were an extraordinary couple in their support for and understanding of each other. It was a relationship I have long envied. I consider myself very fortunate to have worked with Cynthia at Mpapa Gallery to support the development of Zambian art. But it was Cynthia and Simon’s continued friendship that sustained me after I left Zambia, heartbroken, in 1994.
Simon and Cynthia Zukas and Southern African politics
What I have tried to show in this post is the conflict and the danger that surrounded everyone who believed in African freedom and equality. Simon and Cynthia did not speak openly of their commitment, but they always acted on it. It was years before I realised we had mutual friends in the ANC. It may shock you if I illustrate this point by saying that the 1987 Anti-Apartheid exhibition that Mpapa Gallery put on in Lusaka met with disapproval from some white Zambians. At that time, 23 years after Zambian independence, Mandela was still in prison and bombs were still going off around Lusaka aimed at killing freedom fighters.
Simon Zukas, a moral and principled man of wisdom and humour
There are many tributes to Simon Zukas as a politician, activist and person. All I can do is write this personal post about grief and affection.
Simon is to have a state funeral and he will be laid to rest in the Jewish Cemetery at Leopards Hill. Mike is buried in the plot he chose for himself at the Jewish Cemetery at Chamba Valley and my daughter Tanvir made the necessary difficult decisions and painful arrangements. Simon and Cynthia offered immense and kind support to Mike’s children, friends and family during this sad time. My love and thoughts will be with Cynthia during the funeral, the sitting of Shiva and the long years of grief afterwards. The burial service will be conducted by the same Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft as Mike’s funeral.
Through my tears, I remember Simon Zukas, his smile and wit, as well as his gentle humour and intelligent understanding of the importance and necessity of democracy and democratic processes for Zambia, even in the face of wrong-turnings, mistakes and arguments.
I wish the traditional long life to all those who grieve at Simon’s funeral during the saying of Kaddish. As ever, Jews insist on life even when grieving for the death of someone loved. This is the time when families put aside differences to remember their dead. I include here the link to the YouTube video of Simon’s funeral. It is long but the words of the Rabbi and of Simon’s children should be heard.
“Hamakom y’nachem etchem b’toch sh’ar avelai tziyon ve yerushalayim.” May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.