Zanzibar: Revolt spiced up island life

Zanzibar is one of the most beautiful islands on Earth. Its waters are serene and clear, an ideal zone for those who appreciate the secret beauty of the ocean.

Beneath this beauty of dancing sunsets lies a historical jewel for those who aspire to a society free of suffering. Exactly 50 years ago, a revolution erupted on the tiny island, led by a maverick named John Okello, who had no plan or vision but was driven by raw rage and oodles of chutzpah. An oppressive government of an Africanised Arab elite that had dominated black Africans for too long was toppled overnight.

Zanzibar's history is complex, with layer upon layer of oppressors from Arabs to different hues of Europeans who oppressed the oppressors and governed by divide and rule.

In January 1964, Okello, an army serviceman, gathered some disaffected youth and overthrew the government of the sultan and his Arab minority, who had monopolised power through machination after Britain granted independence the previous year.

Chaos and mayhem set in. But, like Louis Bonaparte, Okello didn't appear "like a bolt from the blue", as Karl Marx told us. He was a creation of the oppressive and racist conditions on the island, which, in the 18th century, was a busy slave market. It is said that more than 50 000 people were sold annually.

The tourist route takes you from the middle of the city to the spice plantations. The slaveholding quarters are a nightmare to this day, where you can still witness holes dug not more than a metre deep to keep scores of captured blacks until the slave ships arrived.

In the slave yard stands a lone tree, forlorn. The half-informed tourist guide speaks without emotion about how newly captured blacks were tied to the tree and whipped to test their strength and thus determine their price on the auction block.

You wish for him to stop talking and quickly move on.

By the time you enter the Anglican cathedral, also standing on the slave quarters, which prides itself for having erected an altar exactly on the "whipping spot", your soul is lodged deep inside the belly of the slave quarters.

You suppress your imagination to stop you from wailing with the millions of voices muffled by captivity. You fear vertigo must be upon you; maybe like me you ask to sit down to rein yourself in.


There is little doubt that the eruption of the revolution, which seems irrational and even comical, must have something to do with the irrational cruelty of slavery – the foundations of Zanzibar.

Zanzibar reminds us that enslaving Africans didn't start with the Europeans; the Arabs were there first. They castrated the males, hence few traces of their evil deeds linger except relative economic development. The cry for compensation and acknowledgement is still to besiege Arabia from black Africa.

My interest in Zanzibar is more personal than political. I have gone there three times under the pretext of a holiday, a film festival and in search of the grave of Marxist scholar Mohamed Babu.

Okello's lumpen revolution was rescued from itself by the revolutionary socialists of the Umma Party under the leadership of Babu.

Unlike the tragic fate that befell the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Zanzibar was luckier to have real revolutionaries who gave it direction.

Within days of the revolution the CIA and the West were plotting an end to the "Cuba of Africa".

The "comrades", as Babu's people were called, took over from the fumbling Okello and expropriated land and distributed it among those who worked it.

They removed all privileges that came with political office; the president drove his own car.

The participation of people in the affairs of the nation and politics was expanded.

The idealists of the world came down to help the revolution.

Washington, DC, got a fright and started plotting to end the experimentation with real liberation. Declassified CIA documents show disturbing plots and conniving to stop the revolution.

The merger of Tanganyika and Zanzibar to give us Tanzania was realised on the back of two opposing forces that wittingly or unwittingly worked together.

Julius Nyerere wanted one country, in accordance with his pan-Africanist ideals; the United States believed Zanzibar would be tamed by such an arrangement and encouraged it.

The united Tanzania saw Babu appointed minister of economic planning in Nyerere's Cabinet on the mainland.

But tragic events unfolded back on the island. The moderate president Abeid Karume was assassinated in 1972. Babu and about 40 of his comrades were accused of the crime and sentenced to death in absentia.

Some of Babu's co-accused were sent back to Zanzibar where they were summarily executed on arrival. Nyerere locked Babu up without trial from 1972 to 1978.

Babu's release was secured by an international campaign led from the University of Dar es Salaam, a hot- bed of radical scholars at the time.

The historical jury is still out about whether Nyerere locked up the vocal Marxist to silence him for his criticism of the Ujamaa programme, Nyerere's "African socialism". Babu responded with a critical book he wrote from jail. African Socialism or Socialist Africa has since become a classic in radical circles.

So what was the real reason for my visits to Zanzibar if all the political events were mere pretext?

My late stepfather and the man who raised me was from Tanganyika and stood regal like Babu. The images of the two men are strikingly similar.

I went to Zanzibar to find the roots of my stepfather but instead found the roots of an African revolution.

When I went on the spice tourist route, I did so to see the impact of Babu's agrarian revolution. At a well-managed spice farm with healthy trees of many varieties I asked to see the owner.

The young farm guide was startled.

My inquiry led to a call, which was answered by a voice from the top of a spice tree. I asked him if he knew Mohamed Babu.

"Oh! The comrades!" a delighted response came back.

The small-framed man, tall as Baby Jake Matlala and tough as nails, greeted me with a wide smile, and asked: "You know Babu?"

He told me that the comrades gave him the five hectares of land in 1964. He was at the time a labourer on the farm he now owns and works; living happily from his own labour, free from exploitation.

The spice value chain still reflects a colonial and tribal hierarchy, with black Africans at the bottom and Africanised Arabs on top. But one thing is certain: the revolution liberated the people and freed the land.

I didn't find Babu's grave. He died in 1996 and was buried somewhere in Zanzibar. Nor did I find my stepfather's roots.

But I did find, deep in a revolution that lasted 100 days and turns 50 this year, the answer to some of the big questions of our time.

Andile Mngxitama is an executive member of the Economic Freedom Fighters.

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