Wynter Kabimba: Political maverick
Wynter Kabimba, the hard-talking Patriotic Front (PF) secretary general, is a straight man who calls a spade a spade and makes no apologies whatsoever. Currently, he is the third most important person in as far as the PF government is concerned and is seen by some as one of the likely successors of party president Michael Sata. But who exactly is he? Jack Zimba reports.
Wynter Kabimba is slumped in a swivel chair in his office at Godfrey House in Lusaka. There is no pretending the toll his huge responsibility as secretary general of the governing party is having on him.
“You can never find me better than this,” he says, with a wry smile and a pensive look.
The ‘SG’, as he is called by those around him, had just returned from having a meeting with President Michael Sata at State House and outside his office, there was a queue of party cadres seeking audience with him till late in the afternoon.
Since the Patriotic Front came to power last September, Mr Kabimba’s life revolves around State House, the courtrooms and his office at Godfrey House on Longolongo Road, which also doubles as a secretariat for his party sometimes.
It’s no wonder he describes the day he accepted to become secretary general of the PF as one of the defining moments in his life.
“The president had called me twice – and this is what the public does not know – that twice I had declined to become secretary general of the party. I had declined because I thought I was too busy with my law firm and I also realized the commitment required if one were to take up that position. So twice I had declined.
“I came to accept the position when the president spoke to me on the third time and to me that was my defining moment because it meant that I must allow my family to endure my absence or my daily attention that I gave to them. I realized that my law firm here must suffer because some of my clients would pull out because of my political affiliation. I’ve sacrificed my business; I’ve sacrificed the happiness of my family because of this position,” he says.
However, as chief executive of the ruling party, he occupies a powerful position and that he is in President Sata’s inner circle is without question. But Mr Kabimba does not give any clues as to whether he is preparing to get into the race for the presidency when the time comes.
“I’ve never believed in this concept that people decide to become president,” he says. “I’ve always believed that it is the people that should say to you ‘we think you can become our president’. I believe that imposed leadership on the people has short life; conferred leadership on an individual by the people has long-term life.”
“I have not seen anyone in the Bible who said to God ‘I want to be leader’. It was God who said ‘Moses I want you to lead my people’,” he says.
He also dispels any assertions there is a looming power struggle within the PF when President Sata is no-longer at the helm of the party.
“PF has revolved from Michael Sata’s centre of personality to an organization, which is a very positive development and I’m glad that as leader and founder of the party, the President is supporting that evolution so that the party as an organization can live long after him. I think that is a vision of a great statesman,” he says.
“The decision-making process within the party is becoming more and more institutionalized to the point that if the old man is not there tomorrow, the party would not find it difficult to find somebody to take over,” he says.
“There are mechanisms within the party to elect another leader,” he says.
I’m not abrasive
To his political detractors, Mr Kabimba is a rabblerousing front-man of the ruling party.
Last year, almost single-handedly, he changed the course of the PF when it was in a political pact with the UPND, leading to the dissolution of the alliance between the two parties.
“It was never going to work,” he says.
United Party for National Development (UPND) spokesperson Cornelius Mwitwa describes him as “cantankerous”, although, ironically, he still has a lot of praise for him.
“He has been an outspoken secretary general of the PF and on that score he must be commended. He has discharged his function as an aggressive secretary general of a party very well. He needs accolades for that,” he says.
But Mr Kabimba doesn’t want to be seen as abrasive or cantankerous.
He insists, rather, that he is just a man who speaks the truth.
“I’m not abrasive, I just tell it as it is,” he says.
“People find it hard to deal with me because I tell the truth. I don’t know how to say ‘yes’ when I mean ‘no’ and I don’t know how to say ‘no’ when I mean ‘yes’,” he says.
And he gets almost philosophical about truth. “The truth shall set you free” is his favourite Bible phrase.
“I’ve always been a believer that truth will never betray you,” he says. “It may cause you problems temporarily, but you will never get betrayed by the truth.
“At no time do I want to compromise the truth or what is right. That is my source of strength,” he says, though he admits that truth is usually not the best ally in politics.
And obviously his legalistic and uncompromising nature does not endear him to the cadres at the lower ranks of the party who want to benefit from their party’s reign.
Mr Kabimba also claims a clean slate in as far as his business dealings are concerned.
“Nobody will tell you that I’m a crook; nobody will tell you that I owe them money and I’m not paying them. Nobody will tell you that they did work for me and I’ve never paid them. Nobody. You can go out there and find just one, not two, who will tell you that we entered into a contract and they did work for me and I never paid them. So I’m truthful to myself as much as I want to be truthful to others. And that’s how many people find it hard dealing with me,” says Mr Kabimba, who was baptised in the United Church of Zambia as a boy. Although he confesses, “I’m not a regular churchgoer, but I use a lot of scriptures.”
His favourite books of the Bible are Paul’s writings, which he describes as ‘inspirational’.
He also reads a lot of biographies, sometimes three at a time. “I yearn for knowledge. I’m one firm believer that knowledge is more powerful than an AK-47,” he says.
“I want to learn from what others have done, both the mistakes they made and the good things they have done,” he says.
His collection includes biographies of Margaret Thacher, Nelson Mandela and Shimon Perez.
“I have a sizable library for an African,” he says.
Born in 1958 in Mumbwa district, Mr Kabimba describes himself as a ‘typical African boy’.
“I come from a typical rural background. I was born in a village in Mumbwa district and I did perform duties that everybody in the village was expected to perform. I drew water from the well to help my mother; I went to fetch firewood in the bush; we went to trap rats in the bush for my grandmother. I don’t eat rats myself but I did that to please my grandmother who was fond of having a rat delicacy. I herded cattle.
He despises people who don’t want to be associated with their village and speak English with different accents after being urbanized.
“I don’t want to be an English person, I don’t want to ape a white man I just want to be a Zambian. I just want to be an African,” he says.
And as a child, Mr Kabimba says he experienced both poverty and a good life through his grandparents.
“My grandparents from my mother’s side can be categorized as a poor household. My grandparents from my father’s side can be categorized as having been a rich family,” he says.
“I know what it means to be poor and to go without a meal and I know what it means to work for another family just to get a bucket of maize for you to eat. But I’ve also experienced where others have to work for us in order to get an income.
“I can blend very easily among the poor and when I go to the village I speak my vernacular language to the point where you wouldn’t think I speak a word of English and also when I go to the Supreme Court, I can use English to argue my case very effectively. I have lived in both worlds,” he says.
His father is a polygamist who had married five wives. Mr Kabimba says he has lost count of his siblings, over 30, probably.
And although his biological mother is now divorced from his father, he says he still enjoys a very good relationship with the other four mothers.
“If my stepmother walked in here, you wouldn’t know she was my stepmother because I relate with her just like my biological mother,” he says.
Although he says his father has influenced him a lot, it was his paternal grandfather – who worked as a court assessor - who inspired him to become a lawyer.
Although Wynter never saw him – for he died a year before he was born – he heard enough good stories about him from his father to want to follow in his footsteps. Otherwise there was nothing to inspire the young Wynter as far as education was concerned.
“Way back when I was in primary school, we didn’t know that there was school beyond grade seven because within the village setup where we lived, we had never heard of anyone who had gone to secondary school. As far as we were concerned, school only went up to grade seven. Then in 1969 one of my cousins qualified from my primary school to go to Mumbwa Secondary School and every time he came home on holiday he used to talk about how life was at school and how they were being taught by White teachers and the kind of discipline they were going through,” he recalls.
For Wynter, those stories inspired him to look beyond his village primary school and when the time came to choose a secondary school, he chose Kafue Boys Secondary School against his father’s advice to choose Mumbwa Secondary School.
He says he has never regretted that decision. He speaks highly of the teachers that taught him.
“During my time we had a predominantly white staff that was sent by various churches from Canada, the UK and United States to come and teach. And those teachers did not only teach us how to read and write or how to pass an exam, they also shaped our characters. They were very good psychologists,” he says.
He owes much of his success to his teachers, some of whom have kept contact with him to this day.
“From that stage, I formed as part of my personality a strong judgment between what is wrong and what is right and never to compromise. What is right is right and shall always remain right,” he says.
Out of 65 students that sat for Form V examinations, Wynter was second best and was selected to study at the University of Zambia in 1978 where he studied law.
After graduating, he worked for the Kitwe City Council before moving to the Lusaka City Council.
Mr Kabimba is also a graduate of the ‘Sata Academy’, a small group of middle-aged politicians that includes Lackson Kazabu, Sylvia Masebo and Emmanuel Chenda who have worked closely with President Sata over the years.
For Mr Kabimba, his relationship with Mr Sata dates back to the early 1980s when he worked for the Lusaka City Council. He says Mr Sata has had a huge influence in his life.
“I consider him my mentor,” he says.
“Our relationship has progressively been growing and improving the past twenty-eight years or so. He has had a great influence on me.
“Old Michael has been an outstanding icon for me,” he says.
Party and government
Recently, Mr Kabimba was accused of overstepping his bounds as party chief and antagonizing those in Cabinet by criticizing how they worked, but it is a position he defends.
“There is the principle of principal and agent,” he explains. “The party is the principal of this programme and the government is the agent so you can’t blame the principal for expressing anxiety or apprehension about how the agent is implementing the programme.
“We the party must closely watch how the government is implementing the programme that has been lent to them by the party.
“As a party we think the government could do better,” he says.
He also defends President Sata’s decision to promote him to number three in the land in as far as protocol is concerned.
“I think the point that the President was making was that you can’t ignore the party, because the programme that the government is undertaking comes from the party under the party manifesto,” he says, dismissing suggestions by some people that the PF was reverting the country to the infamous “Party and its government” system.
“I laugh when I hear people drawing a comparison between UNIP and the PF because there is completely no parallel between the two,” he says.
“The party is completely divorced from government,” he says.
“I don’t drive a government vehicle, I don’t live in a government house and our offices are not in a government building. We have completely divorced the party from the government and that is why I’m not in government. And even when I travel, I don’t get pediem from government,” he says.
On May 25, President Sata honoured Mr Kabimba for his contribution to local government in the country. The local government is the only place Mr Kabimba has ever worked after graduating from university, thereafter he established his own law firm.
“It was a surprise. The President never even called me to tell me about this,” he says,
pointing to the medal, which he has put in a glass frame in his office.
And hanging on the walls of his office are paintings depicting poverty and he spends some time to explain each one of them. It is clear to see what Mr Kabimba, who prides himself as a social democrat, sees in himself – a champion for the poor.