JZU: Malawi’s politician of three seasons

…I lived, that’s how you should remember me

John Zenus Ungapake Tembo simply known as JZU Tembo, breathed his last on Wednesday morning, marking an era of a politician who saw Malawi’s three political seasons of pre-independence, independent one-party regime, and multiparty democracy.

He was Malawi’s first black Finance Minister in 1966 and longest serving Reserve Bank Governor for 13 years.

For a man who commanded love, fear, and hate – his passing will reflect different passions Malawians developed or associated with his name and as he once told The Investigator Magazines Editor Kondwani Munthali, he just wants to be remembered as some who “lived.”

“When I die, people should just remember that I lived. Everything else is up to them, I cannot control how people remember me,” said Tembo is quoted in Munthalis upcoming untitled political book to be released first half of 2024.

A life of a nomad

Born to a CCAP Reverend Zenus Ungapake Tembo, Tembo grew up in different places from his birth on 14 September 1931 until he went to Blantyre Secondary School. He then travelled to University of Roma in Lesotho where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Philosophy.

During his political rallies, Tembo would recount histories of places, people and even events across the Central Region where his father had ministered. He was a living encyclopaedia on CCAP history, naming ministers and families around the areas he had travelled as a child.

He later returned from Lesotho with a wife, Ruth, and he went to teach at Kongwe (Robert Blake Secondary School) where the late Justin Malewezi was before he briefly went to Dedza Secondary School where he states that he taught Bingu wa Mutharika and Goodall Gondwe, among other prominent Malawians. Goodall disputed the version, saying it was Bingu who went to seek extra education support from Tembo.

When I die, people should just remember that I lived. Everything else is up to them, I cannot control how people remember me,” – Tembo

Political career

Upon his release from Gweru Prison, Kamuzu Banda who had recruited the young Cecelia Tamanda Kadzamira from Zomba General Hospital as his nurse, invited Tembo, who was among the few educated Malawians in the late 1950s to contest for the position of MP for Dedza in 1961 General Elections. Which he won.

He was in Cabinet from 1966 as Minister of Finance to 1974, when a reported fall out with Banda and John Msonthi is said to have caused his eventual removal from cabinet. Tembo said he left cabinet to pursue Graduate Finance and Banking studies which would lead him to become Reserve Bank of Malawi Governor for 13 years.

Tembo, who was an uncle to Kamuzu’s Official Hostess as Kadzamira had become, is said to have used the relationship to develop political power base and people that seemed to get Banda’s attention like Aleke Banda and Gwanda Chakuamba were to be arrested or removed from the political scene.

When asked if he was a political strongman to Kamuzu, Tembo laughed and said, “the most powerful people in MCP after Kamuzu were Secretary Generals not Reserve Bank Governors,” in apparent reference to President Bakili Muluzi, Aleke Banda and Gwanda Chakuamba who had all served at different times as Secretary Generals of MCP.

Aleke Banda and Gwanda Chakuamba who had all served at different times as Secretary Generals of MCP were regarded the strong men in politics by the late JZU

The last MCP Secretary General was Dick Matenje who was murdered along Regional Minister Aaron Gadama, Twaibu Sangala and David Chiwanga in what would be disguised as a car accident. Political rumour mills claimed Kamuzu Banda was planning to retire or go on a long holiday and was likely to have proposed a trio of Ministers which would not have included Tembo.

“I was arrested and locked for nine months; the court ruled I had nothing to do with that. That’s all I can say,” Tembo is quoted as saying about what was known as Mwanza Murders trial between 1994 and 1996.

Late Justin Malewezi, then Secretary to the President and Cabinet is said to have been asked by Kamuzu Banda, when Tembo was outside the country to draft the pathway to multiparty democracy after donors including the Catholic and Presbyterian church in Scotland pressed him on multiparty democracy.

Kamuzu went on to announce a referendum on the return to multiparty democracy a thing which allegedly did not please Tembo as he was now Minister of State in the Presidents Office, making him a defacto vice president. He had returned to cabinet in 1989.

Tembo laughed at suggestions he was as powerful as people alleged, asking, “Did you listen to Kamuzu yourself. What did he say?”

By the time referendum was held on June 14, 1993, MCP had lost its paramilitary wing after the Malawi Army had disarmed it and Malawians in diaspora including Kamlepo Kalua were challenging the regime on radios every day. The Catholic Bishops pastoral letter and the arrival and consequent arrest of Chakufwa Chihana ignited huge appetite for democracy.

MCP lost the referendum, then went on to loose elections to Bakili Muluzi’s UDF which had Aleke Banda and Malewezi, former gurus in the Banda regime as its key leaders. Muluzi was UDF President, Aleke, first Vice President and Malewezi, second vice president.

Other Ministers under Banda, Friday Makuta, Edda Chitalo and Edward Bwanali were also in Muluzi’s first cabinet which turned out to be a revenge cabinet stripping the MCP of its Press Trust control, arresting Kamuzu, Tembo and Mama among others.

Tembo was arrested on three separate cases between 1994 and 1996. The Mwanza Murders case, the Kamuzu Academy case and briefly over robbery at Muluzi’s business associate Kalaria Wholesale which turned into a comedy as Banda, Tembo and Kadzamira who were named as master minders were under house arrest or in prison the time they were accused of having plotted the case. John Tembo Jnr was also named.

Mr John Tembo Malawian when he was Minister of Finance and Mrs Barbara Castle British Minister of Overseas Development in a file photo

Did Tembo transform as a democrat?

Kamuzu Banda needed someone from the Southern Region to run on his ticket and Tembo proposed a name which was rejected. Banda opted for Chakuamba as his running mate.

Chakuamba vowed to finish Tembo, according to Tembo, while Chakuamba claimed Tembo wanted to use him as a “political condom.”

The two were good friends in the early 1970’s with Chakuamba having had Tembo as his best man during his wedding.

The two would become bitter political rivals between 1994 until 2003 when Chakuamba lost the MCP Presidency to Tembo. He went to form his own Republican Party.

MCP had more than 8 conventions, at times taking place concurrently in Blantyre and Lilongwe as the two-party giants fought for control. The fight would weaken the party for years failing to make it and after Chakuamba eventually left, it became more prominent in central Malawi only.

Tembo his first go at the presidency at national level in May 2004 but his backing of Muluzi’s attempts for a third term between 2002 and 2003 which he had used to fight Chakuamba left him weak.

“We did our mathematics, supporting Muluzi was just a political strategy for other things,” said Tembo, the closest he ever came to admit that he sabotaged Muluzis bid by having three of his closest allies which included Besiton Majoni and Louis Chimango abstain or miss the vote.

He had come close to personal violence twice, one outside the High Court of Malawi premises in Blantyre where Chakuamba supporters chased him after appearance in a court case and at Dikisoni in Malingunde, Lilongwe where DPP youth were blamed for the fracas.

He claimed he had turned into “a defender of democracy” as he protested inclusion of MCP MP’s including Late Kate Kainja,  Bintony Kutsaira and Ted Kalebe in Bingu’s administration.

The final years

Tembo said he had planned to retire early if Chakuamba had won the 2003 convention, but his win and strong parliamentary results which saw MCP garner 60 MPs in 2004 gave him impetus to run again in 2009.

He miscalculated the growing resentment of the UDF as he partnered with it to give Bingu wa Mutharika a tough run-in parliament. His fights with MCP youthful MPs including Late Ishmael Chafukira, Sosten Gwengwe and Abele Kayembe would see his popularity wane.

In 2011 he signalled he would not run again in 2014.

Tembo said he had planned to retire early if Chakuamba had won the 2003 convention

MCP attracted 12 candidates including Former Chief Justice Lovemore Munlo, former Minister under Kamuzu Jodder Kanjere, Felix Jumbe, Eston Kakhome, Chris Daza and Lazarus Chakwera, a Pastor from the Assemblies of God.

The Late Lingson Belekanyama, was one who brought Chakwera’s name to Tembo as many feared his leaving of Nkhoma CCAP could have had an effect. He was backed by many parliamentarians and some Chiefs. Tembo agreed.

Tembo remained as the father of MCP

He retired and remained largely in Lilongwe. After the death of his wife, who was also his dietician, his health detoriated. He travelled to London and South Africa for medical treatment. He had battled with diabetes for years, including when he was locked in 1995 where he had to plead for his medications.

Hero or villain- JZU is part of Malawi history

Tembo is credited with being one of the managers who cared for their workers, at home and at office. He was kind to many people and was full of humour as a person.

John Tembo is feared as having dealt ruthlessly with his political rivals, that some still find it hard to forgive his political life and adventure.

One thing that is definite, as the man from Nthulu at Chimbiya joins his wife Ruth at the Mausoleum, he lived Malawi’s three political season. He leaves plenty of lessons of discipline, loyalty and dedication to high standards when delivering services.

In his own words, John Tembo lived, that’s what Malawians will always remember him.

He had four children with his wife Ruth namely John Jnr, Chimwemwe Dudu, Themba and Dalitso. He also had other children.

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