A salute to an African statesman, Benjamin William Mkapa


On Friday morning, I was woken by the pinging noise the phone makes when a text has been sent. It was a message from my daughter who heads our company’s Tanzanian office. The message: “President Mkapa has passed.” My immediate reaction was “so sad”. 

I had known former president Benjamin William Mkapa for more than two decades. I met him within days after my arrival in Dar es Salaam in 1998 as the United States envoy to Tanzania. Newly minted ambassadors would usually have to wait longer than that to present their credentials but I assumed my post in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of the US embassy in Dar by al-Qaeda. 

Mkapa appreciated the gravity of the situation and urgency of the moment, so normal protocols were set aside. I would benefit from that pragmatic and practical wisdom many more times during my time in Tanzania, as well as after my tenure as ambassador and after his terms as president ended.

As I contemplated that thought, the curse of Covid-19 became personal in a way that it hadn’t before. I’ve been in lockdown in Johannesburg since mid-February. Had I not, I would have seen Mkapa between then and now. But, because of the Covid-19 crisis I didn’t get to bid him a final farewell.  

Despite that, I find comfort in this thought: the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that “When you trust in God, you are like a tree planted by water that sends out its roots toward the stream. You will not fear times of heat and drought, nor will you cease to bear fruit.” Ben Mkapa was like a tree planted by the water, he didn’t fear those times of heat or drought. Like a tree planted by the water, though he has died, his memory and legacy live on, and his good works, his many good works, will continue to bear fruit. 

This was how my day started. As the day continued it would not be the last time that thoughts about Mkapa crossed my mind.

Later that day, I played a round of golf with a friend. Afterwards, he gave me a ride home. On the way, we made a quick stop by his office. At the garage entrance, we were stopped by the attendant who took my temperature with a thermal scanner. It was 34.2 degrees. Three things struck me about that encounter. The first is, I know there can be a bit of a discrepancy in the readings from thermal thermometers — a reading can be as much as 0.6 degrees off. So, on a properly working scanner my temperature could have been 34.8 degrees on the high end or 33.6 on the low end. I also know that once the body temperature drops below 35 degrees, hypothermia has set in. At 33.6 degrees you’re at death’s door. Well, I knew I wasn’t dead because I was talking about the round of golf I just played and I signed my name on the sheet verifying my temperature reading. I had to chuckle at this latest snafu of life at level three lockdown. After a good laugh, I thought about Mkapa and Tanzania again.

A couple of other things occurred to me. There is a long and honoured history between the ANC and Tanzanian leadership. During the apartheid days, when the ANC was under siege, many of its comrades found safe haven in Tanzania. On more than one occasion, I talked to former presidents Julius Nyerere and Mkapa about the ANC base camps in Kongwa, Bagamoyo, and Morogoro. 

The other thought was that now that South Africa is under siege because of the Covid-19 crisis, a conversation between old friends seems well past due. In terms of population, South Africa and Tanzania are about the same size, with about 59-million people. As the corona-crisis unfolded the two took different tracks and, as result, have wound up in different places. 

South Africa implemented a strict lockdown and Tanzania didn’t. There is no statistical or anecdotal evidence that indicates Tanzania has experienced a higher infection or mortality rate than South Africa. In terms of economic outcomes, the results couldn’t be more different. For 2020, South Africa’s economy is expected to shrink by nearly 8% and Tanzania’s is projected to grow by 2.5%. Not only that, but on July 1 the World Bank announced that Tanzania had achieved middle-income status five years ahead of schedule.

There’s an old adage, that when you find yourself in a hole the first thing to do is stop digging. South Africa is in a hole right now. Rather than keep digging, it might be time to seek some sage advice. I don’t know how Mkapa initially felt about Tanzania’s “no lockdown” approach to Covid-19. If I had seen him before he died, I would’ve asked.  One of the things that I loved about Mkapa was if a plan produced a good result, whether it was his plan or not, whether he was initially for it or not, if it got him, or the country, where it needed to be he had no problem reversing his position. 

Given South Africa’s downward spiral and Tanzania’s upward trajectory, maybe it’s time for a talk between old friends. Though this suggestion could be construed as a criticism of the South African government’s current strategy, it really isn’t. All I’m saying is that, under the circumstances, South Africa could use a bit of the sort of sober and practical advice Benjamin William Mkapa was famous for.

Charles R Stith served as the US ambassador to Tanzania during the Clinton administration. He is chairperson of The Pula Group, a real estate, energy and mining company in Tanzania and other sub-Saharan countries.

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Charles R Stith
Charles Stith was former president Bill Clinton’s envoy to Tanzania and is currently the nonexecutive board chair of the African Presidential Leadership Centre, a Johannesburg-based NGO

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