THE voice of reason is gone, abruptly silenced at the most critical time.
It was with a heavy heart, endless grief and deep sadness learning of the untimely death of the indefatigable human rights activist par excellence Arnold Payne.
In August 2014 life surrendered to death and we lost Payne.
He was a rare breed, a fearless human rights advocate, imbued with a generous heart, but had no time for corrupt and dishonest people. Payne was an inexhaustible fountain of knowledge and wisdom.
My first encounter with Payne was in the early nineties. It was during my tenure at a local human rights organisation.
He regularly visited the offices in Bulawayo. This was way before he was elected to various positions within Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, a leading human rights organisation at the time.
Few years later he became deputy national chairperson of the Zimrights and deputised Reginald Matchava Hove.
They became a formidable force in articulating human rights issues in Zimbabwe. May his voice linger on and sustain us as we trudge along yearning for a better tomorrow. It is no easy walk.
During those years I learnt more about the man from the man himself. I vividly recall our first trip together to Solusi University to address students on human rights and governance issues.
The second time we visited homeless communities at Esigodini area who were threatened with eviction after settling themselves in a derelict farm and local government officials were breathing fire and brimstone following the so-called “illegal” occupation of the land by “squatters”.
We tried our best to mediate in the land dispute with limited success because government officials were intransigent and intractable during the mediation process.
Payne was a fearless critic of excesses of government officials, especially those in high places whose preoccupation seemed to be looting and fleecing public funds with impunity and abusing State resources and unjustly enriching themselves at the expense of the indigent, women and children.
Payne was not just a pain to current regime, he was a fervent critic of successive Rhodesian administrations.
He spoke out against exploitation of man by man, racial tendencies, skewed development and emasculation of African people by the successive white minority regime.
Many of his acerbic contributions of preindependence period are still as relevant in today’s independent Zimbabwe. He was disgusted at the ill-treatment, discrimination and dehumanising conditions where Africans were subjected to all forms of racial prejudice, discrimination and unabated exploitation.
Payne used to reminisce on his youth years and his short stint at Edgars Stores and the hellish confrontations with top management and circumstances which led him to leave the job.
He was not a quitter, but he decided to leave and left.
On rare occasions he was a man of few words, so taciturn indeed at times he would give an impression of being dumb. I witnessed this during a public meeting held at Bulawayo Small City Hall.
The meeting had been organised by Welfare Society of Bulawayo under the able leadership of Judith G Todd.
Among the main speakers was the then Palestine Liberation Organisation representative in Harare ambassador Ali Halimeh and some prominent members of the Jewish community in Zimbabwe.
It was an ill-tempered meeting, some of the participants were audacious to tell the PLO ambassador on his face that he was lying about the cause of Israel and Palestine conflict.
His perspective, historical analysis, and ways to resolve the conflict drew red faces and scorn from the floor. In that explosive meeting Payne remained in a pensive mood.
Payne was a versatile untiring man who remained imbued in community activities and participated in many forums within and outside Zimbabwe. He had a fervent passion on political debates, human rights promotion and education.
He used to appear in ZBC’s weekly programme Umama Walamuhla presented by Judith Goche.
He had an assailable flair in Ndebele and English languages. He spoke both languages with authority. Payne was the master of African idioms.
He later gained fame and notoriety when he took the water problem of Matabeleland to Parliament. He was highlighting what one man could do.
He tirelessly campaigned for Zambezi water and turning of Matabeleland green.
On his return from Harare he regaled us with hilarious stories and some quite sad like the heartrending experience where a good number of Matabeleland honourable Members of Parliament avoided him at Parliamentary grounds, the few who tip toed around him advised Payne not to push too much the water agenda, lest he upset the establishment.
He related an incident when the then Parliamentary Speaker Cyril Ndebele invited him to his lofty offices.
When host offered him a cup of tea he politely, but firmly turned down the offer. Payne reminded them that it was abuse of tax payers’ money and he would not participate in thieving.
The Honourable Speaker was unsettled by Payne’s blunt remarks.
In early 2000 Payne toured Europe with some prominent human rights activists and politicians. On his return he cast aspersions on some of the personalities.
Payne expressed his disappointment and vowed not to work with them. His remarks were: Izinto ezilobumenemene phakathi angizifuni (I do not accept corrupt activities).
One morning he walked into the office and showed me Operation Desperation Trust documents and apprised me that he was grateful to his friend and human rights lawyer David Coltart who drafted the trust document gratis.
Payne used to fondly recall his first encounter with former South African President Nelson Mandela. It was at an ANC convocation in the north of Johannesburg, at the Coca-Cola Dome in Northgate.
Among the ANC luminaries he met was Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Thabo Mbeki, George Bizos, Ahmed Kathrada, Tokyo Sexwale and Winnie Mandela.
In one of our conversations Payne told me that his favourite book was Let My People Go written by first South African Nobel Peace Prize laureate Chief Albert Luthuli. He also liked Frank Sinatra especially his classic song Doing It My Way.
Order, precision and attention to detail were hallmarks of his character.
I found John Donne’s poem (NO DOMINION) Death, be not proud published by Arnold Hansen Publishers in 1966 a fitting tribute to the national hero, social commentator, writer, political activist, human rights advocate and community builder Arnold Payne:
Death, be not proud
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; not yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones and souls’ delivery!
Thou’rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as ell
And better that thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more, thou shalt die!