Simon Zukas

Ruth HartleyApartheid, Family, Freedom Fighters, History, Mpapa Gallery, Southern Africa, Zambia13 Comments

Simon Zukas, a kind and principled freedom fighter

Memorial Candle lit for Simon Zukas

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.

Simon Zukas, friendship and Judaism

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.

Simon and Cynthia Zukas, Zambian art and friendship

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

Simon Zukas

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.

13 Comments on “Simon Zukas”

  1. Aviva Ron

    This is so clearly written from the heart and I appreciate how you feel the loss. WE knew the family when they lived in Ndola and then Luanshya and were very friendly with Jake’s family in Ndola. We were proud of what Simon thought and did – I remember my father explaining to me what Marxism was because I heard the term from Simon. But later he was gone from the Copperbelt, on to other and much bigger things after Independence. Although my parents were in Ndola till 1991, we seldom went to Lusaka. If we did, it was to get medical advice from Dr. Bush! Contact was renewed with Simon and Cynthia when I started working on the social security projects in Zambia in 2009 and then social health insurance project for Zambia from 2012. The late Michael Galaun arranged dinners with them and I contacted Simon and Cynthia every time I came. I was so pleased to be at the 60th wedding anniversary party – when KK stole the show by coming one minute before the couple were due to come into the party tent on the red carpet. They both gave me invaluable inside information and advice, introduced me to some very useful contacts, and I loved visiting Balmoral with them. It would be hard to find more modest and honest Zambians. I can only now wish Cynthia strength in all the good memories and family around her and continued support to art in Zambia.

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Dear Aviva, Thank you so much for this lovely contribution about Simon and Cynthia and how you knew them and were part of the same community. This is all so important as a tribute to Simon and also as a way of increasing our understanding of who he was and what he achieved. I do hope that one day you and I will meet in Zambia and perhaps spend time together with Cynthia. With gratitude Ruth

  2. Lorna Zukas

    Thank you for sharing this. I did not know the Zukas’s of Zambia. However, because of our common name and my work in Zimbabwe, many over the years have asked if I was related. I am sadder today for the lost opportunity to meet such a deeply courageous and committed individual.

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Hi Lorna – it’s good to meet you even if it’s online only. Perhaps you know that Simon Zukas was born in Lithuania and if your family came from there too you may be able to trace a connection? Hugh Macmillan’s book Zion in Africa will provide you with an excellent source of information. What kind of work were you doing in Zimbabwe? I still have connections there. Best wishes Ruth

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Hi Barbara, I often think of you and wonder how you are doing with your lovely bead workshop. It would be good to be able to met again and talk about other connections we share. Thank you for your kind message. Ruth

  3. Gretta Hudson

    So well written Ruth Thank you.
    My thoughts and love go to Cynthia who has stood by Simons side for so long
    and to his family
    He will again join your Mike and my late Johns God father Tommy Fox Pit Les Shurmer and many others May they rest in Peace
    The country would have developed in avery different way without the huge input of the wonderful Jewish Community

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Dear Gretta, It’s really lovely to hear from you again after such a long time even though this is a very sad occasion. Yes – it’s true! Zambia did have a wonderful contribution from the Jewish community and it still does! It also owed much as your say to people like your John too and the other people that you mention. May they all rest in peace – in the knowledge of doing their best always. Yes, my thoughts are with Cynthia and the grief that she will have to bear for the rest of her life – something that you too know. I see that John’s writing is still being read as part of Zambian history. I hope perhaps we may be in touch in the future. Best wishes to you Gretta.


    Dear Ruth, I was very touched reading your warm tribute to Simon Zukas. I stayed with the Zukas family for a couple of days in Lusaka during my last trip to Zambia (1986) and he and Cynthia visited us in London later on. I only became aware that Simon had died from Hugh Macmillan’s recent obituary in the Guardian. I was also very touched to learn that Mike was also buried in the same place as Simon. Thank you so much for your eloquent and informative account of Simon’s life.

  5. Marie Howie

    Dear Ruth
    What shines through for me about your writing and has given you cause to write, both about Simon and now Andy, is not only the preciousness of friendship and the sharing of values and their passing but how in the sharing it reminds us that there were those who wanted through art through how they sought to make voices heard keep the warm glow humanity as a button to the next generation. Also the sense of energy in how they were as people and finally as part of community. We have not met however I sent sense an urgency to set down and express the transition and the end of empire, the retention of as it were cultural epitaphs of the way things were done . I wish you well and thank you for sharing . Marie

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Dear Marie – thank you. Yes – I do think art is the way we connect with past, present and future and friendship and love with each other – the ideas I have are not fully formed yet but I am trying to write them into my next novel – The Colourless Child. I did think that making art was a greedy way to try and make ourselves last after we die but now I think that it is a way to be hopeful and perhaps to find forgiveness too for the inevitable mistakes and the hurt we do – and as we have done through colonialism.

  6. Mare

    Dear Ruth

    ” I did think that making art was a greedy way to try and make ourselves last after we die.”
    I had never thought of art in that way !
    I am by nature a believer in Community and that only by sharing do we enable those who have yet to arrive to have material that people did speak as survivors in that it gives hope to our values and gives respect ot some abiding values which enable us to live together in peace. so in January when I am house sitting my brothers house in Edinburgh on the sea front I shall devote time to my dyslexic expression through stories and discover if they resonate with anyone.

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Dear Marie,
      You are right to comment on my use of ‘Greedy’. It’s a bad word to use for the idea I wanted to express. What I’ve really felt is that for someone like me making art and writing was an act of hubris. I felt my attempts to write were not good enough and I wondered if I was just afraid of not being worth anything. Making art is a way of sharing and reaching out. I don’t feel that anymore because I think making art is important. I hope I’ve put it a bit better this time?

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