USHE’S MISSION IN ZIMBABWE: Seven Lessons on Change Leadership[1]

In April 1980, the late Dr Herbert Silvester Musiyiwa Ushewokunze (Ushe) was appointed the first Minister of Health for an independent Zimbabwe under Prime Minister Robert Gabriel Mugabe.  He remained at his post for eighteen months and was dismissed in October 1981.  In that period, and in years to come when he returned to Government, he was perpetually surrounded by controversies.  To his many admirers, Ushe was a man determined to change Zimbabwe in a hurry.  To his detractors (and he had many), Ushe was seeking to wreck Zimbabwe.  With the many developments in Zimbabwe taking place, the issue of what impact his mission would have had on Zimbabwe had it succeeded is no longer so clear-cut and we have an opportunity to debate, learn, and hopefully act.

As Zimbabweans ponder their future with a new dawn in Zimbabwe, they may find it useful to reflect on these seven themes from Ushe’s mission in Zimbabwe to better inform strategies for the reconstruction of national institutions.


1. Learn from history

What we did yesterday taught us that nothing is impossible – Fidel Castro

Ushe’s mission sought to learn from history, and this allowed him to link his actions in the Zimbabwe of 1980 with developments that had shaped the history of Zimbabwe for several hundred years.  Ushe had no doubt that history had a role in post-colonial reconstruction.  This need to learn from history enabled him to construct a critical argument as to why change in Zimbabwe was necessary.  He was quick to identify negative and positive elements from the history of Zimbabwe, and to link the analysis with a program of working for change in the health sector and wider society.

The generation of 2017 has much history to learn from even over the last four decades: including the euphoria of independence in 1980, Gukurahundi in 1982-84, Unity Accord in 1986, ESAP in 1991-96, Black Friday of 1998, the Farm Invasions of 2000, Murambatswina in 2005, Hyperinflaction during 2007- 08, and GNU of 2009-13 among others.  While the past cannot be changed, its lessons can certainly be critical in shaping the future.


2. Forgive, but never forget

The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong – Mahatma Gandhi

Ushe’s mission recognized the need to forgive, but never forget.  Through it, he hoped to support the implementation of a realistic policy of national reconciliation adopted by the Government of Zimbabwe led by Robert Mugabe.  He often noted that many ‘white Zimbabweans saw reconciliation as recapitulation and surrender by the Africans rather than the forgiving spirit of Africa’.  The theme on theneed to forgive, but never forget became the basis for tackling the lack of confidence on the part of Africans, and the need to redress past injustices.  While many white Zimbabweans saw reconciliation as a justification for separate existence in the social contexts, Ushe saw it as an opportunity to promote greater understanding between former protagonists.  He was acutely aware of persisting racism on the part of white Zimbabweans, and fear of wealthy white people by poor black Zimbabweans.  In the style of Fanon, Ushe urged his fellow Africans to start with themselves if they were to successfully confront racism and build a new Zimbabwe.  In addition, reconciliation required the ‘rider’ to disembark the ‘horse’ and walk alongside each other.  In the end, reconciliation in Zimbabwe retained bitter memories among the majority poor Africans with continued old attitudes among white Zimbabweans; while the African elite tried to walk a tight rope.  This is the ghost of post-1980 Zimbabwe and which much of post-colonial Africa continued to struggle with.  Ushe’s theme on this mission points to one way of confronting this ghost as Africa tries to find a larger role in the increasingly more globalized international environment.

This spirit of forgiveness combined with a memory of the past is as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1980; with all the pain various groups in society have experienced these last four decades while being called upon to build a more inclusive society post-2017.


3. Act on facts

Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children . . . ― Amilcar Cabral

Ushe’s mission advocates for one to act on facts, a feature rooted in his scientific training as a medical doctor, where diagnosis provided the evidence and justification for the prescribed treatment even if the medicine was unpalatable.  Facts were stubborn and they would guide action before ideology, and from the outset Ushe was aware of the legal framework within which policy would be developed, even with the euphoria of election victory in 1980.  From very on, Ushe wanted a private hospital development project halted until resource availability to the public sector had stabilized.  It quickly became clear that the gulf between private developers and the Minister could not be closed, and Ushe stated he would have the project halted immediately.  Within a month, Ushe was out of a job.  In subsequent discussions after his dismissal from Government, it was clear that Ushe was acutely aware that there was often a high price to be paid for choosing to act on facts in line with this mission’s element; especially when facts were uncomfortable to the ruling elite.

The 2017-generation is quite social media savvy and is daily faced with information overload – which makes it is often difficult to sift facts from opinions.  In this environment, it is even more critical for facts (as far as they can be objectively verified) to guide actions.  It will not be easy, but a necessary task if the post-2017 Zimbabwe is to build a long-lasting development strategy.


4. Be an internationalist

African nationalism is meaningless, dangerous, anachronistic, if it is not, at the same time, pan-Africanism – Mwalimu Julius Nyerere

Ushe’s mission was informed by the need to be an internationalist, arising from his experience in the world he had known, as a medical student in South Africa, as a guerrilla fighter in Mozambique, as a persuader of international organizations to support the struggle for Zimbabwe, and as a development worker interacting with individuals from all over the world.  Ushe had a great respect for intellectual discourse and was eager to engage in one-on-one dialogue with those he thought his equal.  He certainly saw himself as a global citizen, rooted in the African cultural milleu, but immersed in western technological approaches.  It is to the internationally defined primary health care (PHC) approach that he turned to when articulating a rationale for change in the new health service; in spite of attacks by the out-going colonial health administration as someone out to wreck the health service by advocating for the PHC approach.  This mission requiring one to be an internationalist gave Ushe an opportunity to freely learn from others. It is the adoption of this mission’s element that enabled Ushe to mobilize members of his team from all walks of life – irrespective of tribe, colour, gender, or nationality.  The mission’s element provided Ushe with a mechanism to make quick progress in policy formulation by tapping into international expertise while building relevant capacities among his fellow Zimbabweans.

In the Zimbabwe of 2017, internationalism still comes naturally to a generation raised on global platforms of Internet and social media; and many with relatives in the Diaspora where Zimbabweans have gone to trade their skills. Maintaining this great inheritance from those who led the anti-colonial struggle should serve the new generation well as they tap into global innovations and adapt them to the resolution of local problems.


5. Fight for equity

The rich man’s dog gets more in the way of vaccination, medicine and medical care than do the workers upon whom the rich man’s wealth is built – Samora Machel

Ushe’s mission on the need to fight for equity was interwoven with a social democratic movement that had its roots in social democratic parties of Europe going back to the nineteenth century.  Inequalities were at the heart of conflicts in colonial Rhodesia, and would continue to pose a major threat to social stability; and he put forward a strong case for addressing inequalities.  He was concerned that failure to address inherited inequalities would undermine the whole social experiment of reconciliation.  In pursuit of his mission to fight for equity, Ushe used health to demonstrate the dimensions of inequalities, many of them mirrored in the wider society.  He was not calling for a uniform spending of health resources per citizen as mathematical equality would demand, but was instead calling for a shift in resource allocation so that those gross inequalities that allowed gaps to widen between the well-served and the under-served could be narrowed.  He was particularly keen to use the motto of ‘those who can afford should pay’ so that Government resources could go to the poor unable to pay for services.  On the face of it, this sounds reasonable today, but it was not so in the post-Rhodesia period where Ushe was working to transform the health service.  The minority that had received so much from the State was most unwilling to give up a few privileges to buy goodwill and cooperation from the underserved African population.

Zimbabwe’s post-2017 changes are going to produce losers and winners, and it will be important for the winners not to leave behind the losers – an act that would initially be a potential source of social conflict, followed by income disparities, and eventually resentment as those excluded from economic opportunities might produce open conflict in society.  Policies supportive of an inclusive economy in the post-2017 Zimbabwe will in the long-term serve the new generation well by creating firm foundations for a stable society.


6. Give every comrade a job

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others? – Martin Luther King, Jr

Ushe’s mission needed those in power to give every comrade a job, convinced that failure to do so would be a grave mistake and would make it impossible for Zimbabwe to achieve the vision of peace and prosperity. In his first ministerial job in health, Ushe stated the mission simply and directly as the goal of integrating military health cadres into the Ministry of Health.  Ushe was driven by this mission’s theme to give every comrade a job, believing that the future of Zimbabwe could only be assured when every comrade was productively engaged and totally integrated into the life of a new Zimbabwe.  He was in a hurry to implement this particular them of his mission, often impatient with those he saw as having “forgotten the comrades!”  He sensed that the future of Zimbabwe depended on the success of this mission’s theme to give every comrade a job, and he risked everything in his political career on account of its implementation.

With over 90% of the current Zimbabwe young generation not engaged in formal employment and often eking a living in the informal economy, this is a theme that the post-2017 leadership in Zimbabwe would be well advised to explore.  At the same time, leadership will need to recognize that since the public sector cannot be a source of employment, the key to more jobs will be the creation of opportunities for the young generation to use their knowledge, expertise, and access to innovation for self-employment while preparing to become employers.


7. Push for visible change

It always seems impossible until it’s done – Nelson Mandela

Ushe’s mission urged everyone to push for visible change, a feature that was at the heart of the conflict that finally saw him out of office so early in the life of Mugabe’s government in its formative years.  Lancaster House had frozen Zimbabwe’s anti-colonial struggle just on the eve of its victory and the result was one where racial privileges were left intact and protected by law.  Getting capable and qualified Africans in positions of authority quickly was one victory that would demonstrate to the majority that the change promised to them was coming; to be quickly followed by a marked change in the type of health services available.   The need to push for visible change led Ushe to dig up facts from an uncomfortable history for the elite, irrespective of race.  The arguments he advanced made many in government nervous that there would be an exodus of white people out of Zimbabwe, and possibly military retaliation by South Africa seeking to maintain the status quo in Zimbabwe.  Ushe’s response was that the future of Zimbabwe lay in the white population making some sacrifices so that space could be created for the majority to participate in society and feel the need to strive for stability.  For Ushe, change was necessary to forestall destructive radical change arising from the frustrations of a majority.  For many in Zimbabwe, Ushe’s push for visible change was perceived as a destabilizing force and a threat to the new order.  Ushe’s response was that reconciliation did not mean total protection of the white minority at the expense of the African majority, but an opportunity for controlled change so that a new Zimbabwe could truly be born from old Rhodesia.  Although the Prime Minister, R.G. Mugabe, often found the message from Ushe uncomfortable, he also often identified with the desired goal and might explain the rather unpredictable deployment that characterized Ushe’s various postings to ministries where the old order was proving rather stubborn in the face of change.  In Ushe’s words, he was a ‘blunt instrument’ used to open up space for change in Ministries and agencies with hard core advocates for the status quo and afraid of a future where their privileges would be challenged.

In 2017, the theme of pushing for visible change is as relevant as it was in 1980, and the post-2017 generation will need to find its own ways to push for visible change.  However, the out-going generation has over the last four decades provided glimpses of how this can be done – with varying degrees of success while society keeps adjusting to new conditions and environments.  While the old generation cannot tell the coming generation how to effect change, their actions do provide sufficient insights on pitfalls and success for those keen to learn from this history, act on facts, and be willing to fight for a more inclusive and equitable society.




Mungai N. Lenneiye (t. @udugunation; blog,, Founder Trustee, Udugu Institute: For a Better Innovated Africa.  

Udugu Institute promotes innovation in Institutions, Systems, and Technology (IST).  This note is a modified extract from Lenneiye, N.M. (2015) Ushe’s Mission, SAPES Books, Harare.


[1] Taken from a 2015 publication of the same title by the author