On 19 March 2019, the heart of Brenda Muntemba, 49, ceased to beat, cutting short a soaring career in public service that was so distinguished that few would match it even if they were given a chance to start theirs all over again. Is this how fleeting life is? Yes, l had heard that she was involved in a road traffic accident. Still, l had remained fairly optimistic that she would fully recover her health and continue doing what she loved: serving the public effortlessly and with an appreciable amount of honour. An outstanding citizen of our country, Brenda was, at the time of her death, serving as Zambia’s High Commissioner to Kenya. Her passing is a painful reminder of the fragility of life; of how vulnerable we all are to death; of the impermanence of breathing. Today it is Brenda. Tomorrow, it will be our turn.

The lesson to all is clear: let us be there for each other, take care of ourselves and cherish the good times we share. It is easy in the bloom of youth and health to forget our mortality. For in the end, death must come to all. Such is the current order and nature of existence, of life. We come. We go. It is a new beginning to an old process. It remains my conviction that the relevance of death lies in its impact on those that live. Let Brenda’s death inspire us to continually improve ourselves because it is in our quest for individual excellence that we truly become witnesses to the greatness of life and service to humanity. Let such deaths remind us to celebrate the ephemera and gift that each day is, to live now and in the present. We sometimes miss out on life when we seek more, when we seek permanence, for what we have is now, and we must live in the moment. For that is all there is to life – now. As one of Zambia’s prominent artists, Petersen Zagaze, has sung, ‘Ku manda kuli boring’! That song summarises what life is: alive!

Brenda lived her life, especially the public part of it, well. She lived her humanity on her sleeve and constantly challenged and enlisted us, as Zambians, as human beings, to reveal or give expression to our inner greatness. I never got a chance to meet Brenda in person, but such was the appeal of the essential elements of her character that one could draw inspiration from them even from afar. What struck me most about her even then was her clear sense of identity, her wonderful sense of humour and wit, her rounded personality, broad interests and cultivated tastes, great energy, her civility of expression in most that she said, her courage and discipline, and her remarkable gift and capacity for nourishing the talents of others. She also retained a great awareness and extraordinary sensitivity to the respect that the dignity of every human being deserves. Brenda was, at a personal level, a truly magnificent and decent individual, who was easily outraged by injustice and abuse. A graduate of the University of Zambia and one of France’s top universities, Brenda lived the belief that the acquisition of knowledge should result in its application to causes and communities that need it most. She refused to join the ranks of self-serving educated elites who are at the heart of public life, including those who occupy key positions in several state institutions and are complicit in Zambia’s continuing fall from grace, and whose actions account for our country’s deepening crisis, illustrated by economic decline, sustained institutional deterioration and heightened political divisions.

It was however her role as police spokesperson under the administration of President Levy Mwanawasa that gave Brenda a wider platform and catapulted her to deserved national prominence. Brenda defined and exemplified the best of that position. There are many Zambians for whom an appointment to a higher public office appears to corrosively erode any good judgement that the appointee previously possessed; those who forget all the principles that they previously had and are now content to take instructions from their appointing authority. Brenda was not among them. Many Zambians regard her, and not without justification, as the most professional, most effective and perhaps most competent person to have graced that public position in recent historical memory.

There is a curious way in which the President of Zambia’s true character, especially in relation to their attitude towards power, the rule of law and their commitment to safeguarding the independence and integrity of state institutions, is partly revealed or expressed by his or her choice of appointment to the position of Inspector General of Police (IG), who in turn appoints the police spokesperson. Many Zambians also remember Ephraim Mateyo who was appointed Police IG by Mwanawasa in July 2005 as the best and most professional in recent memory. Both Brenda and Mateyo were widely regarded as diligent officers who represented the best of public service, observed the rule of law and proactively positioned the police as a shield for the weak and the ordinary citizen and not as a sword for the elite and those in power. What many overlook, however, is that both officers reflected the character of their Commander-in-Chief, President Mwanawasa. Good leaders, at whatever level, attract their kind and bring out the finest or best individual qualities of their subordinates, drawing attention in the process, though without being self-conscious about it, to their own. It is the same with bad leaders. Brenda, as was Mateyo, was a product of her context – a time when a functional meritocracy, one’s demonstrated loyalty to ethical values and other promotion mechanisms, ensured, as much as possible, that only the very best of us rose to key public positions of leadership. Think the character of the Police IG or Spokesperson, think the character of Zambia’s President. They embody, epitomise and exemplify each other.

In the death of Brenda, we have lost, once again, one of the best of us. If the fat worm of death had the courtesy to seek our opinions on who it should consume next, I am quite certain that none of the Zambians who knew her commitment to public service and her loyalty to the expression of ethical values would have recommended Brenda. On the death of Lucy Sichone, in August 1998, Bright Mwape – a wise, enormously gifted, forthright and upstanding citizen of our country whose mind and bravery I adored, who was fiercely opposed to all cowardice and opportunism and whose own life was tragically cut short in a road traffic accident in 1999 – wrote of perhaps Zambia’s most famous dissident who spoke truth to power, enriched democracy and was at the forefront of the fight for social justice:

“Another dream has gone to the grave. Another vision is buried. Day by day, we seem to be left with a people who are embryos of themselves, people who never grow out of themselves. They dream and never work their dreams, hold visions and never live them. Frightened at failure and scared to venture out. People after sound opinions of others. Looking to be forever judged ‘good’ but no one knows by who…. This is a country of dreamers and wishful thinkers who have lacked the courage and character to grab things and make them work. The anger ignited in Lucy’s death is that we have lost the very character of reform, a symbol of work, an epitome of self-actualisation, a daring spirit of making things work however hard and whoever the huddle, human or guns…Lucy made herself a spectacle for bemused lesser mortals who clapped and marveled at her courage without enough stamina to lend a hand. She fought battles to defend the lives of others even when her own was failing her. We are a rhetoric people and that is what Lucy was not. When will another Lucy live?”

The importance of the message inherent in Bright’s poignant tribute to Lucy is easy to downplay perhaps because it has been such a regular part of our vocabulary of loss for many years that we have become insensitive to its real meaning and significance. I dare say, however, that in effectively discharging her public responsibilities with admirable honour and integrity, it was as if Brenda was consciously refusing to be the pacified citizen and bemused lesser mortal, the new Zambian, that Bright was talking about. Instead, it appears as though she sought to use the life, talents, and opportunities she was given to contribute something special to Zambia, to lend a hand, to express the courage of her convictions, and to fight battles that enhance the lives of others, perhaps spurred by the question: how can I make the greatest difference in the areas that matter most to me and other people? Today, we too are perhaps entitled to posing the question (not so much in relation to civic activism since we already have the inimitable Laura Miti and Linda Kasonde there, but in relation to the return of professionalism and impartiality in our country’s police): when will another Brenda Muntemba – a principled voice from the police top command who is worthy of public respect and esteem – live?

It is worth noting that Brenda was never President of Zambia. She was never a Cabinet Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of the National Assembly, a judge on the Constitutional Court, Director of Public Prosecutions, nor a member of the Law Association of Zambia executive. She was not even a Police IG. She was, by and large, an ordinary public servant. Yet her death, as did her public life, has united the diverse energies and sections of the Zambian society, stunned by the realisation of what they have lost: one of the few bright spots with integrity left in these terribly dark times. They recognise that they have lost someone who used her position to give expression to some of the values that epitomise the very essence of public life – selfless service, genuine humility, active listening, communication, cooperation, capacity for effective leadership and moral force of character. They acknowledge that today’s Zambia so desperately needs a Brenda – a public servant who refuses to comply with wrongful orders, who serves truth and justice, acts as an agent or catalyst of positive action in dealing with the issues that matter most, or simply an active citizen who refuses to comply with repression, asks the hard questions, or proposes ways forward.

It is fair to say that there are Zambians in public life today, including some who occupy or previously occupied the above-mentioned lofty public positions, who, if they died now, would neither be missed nor attract the concern of many. Those entrusted with public office today should therefore seize this moment of grief and pause to ask themselves a few fundamental questions: if I died today, what kind of impact and record would I leave behind on public life? Would Zambians mourn me the way they are mourning Brenda, or would they, perhaps in silence, murmurs or hushed tones, curse the day I rose to public office and welcome my departure from the face of the Earth as a good, if much delayed, riddance? Is it too late for me to change for the better, to prioritise public good over personal gain, relationships and ties?

Rest in peace, Brenda, and we who remain behind will pick up the baton and continue the race towards the good of the public good. As the English poet John Donne warned death before he himself fell victim to it on 31 March 1631, ‘Death, be not proud’. For in killing Brenda, death has only overshadowed itself, demonstrated its powerlessness and succeeded in making her immortal.