‘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”, wrote Bright Mwape in a moving tribute to Lucy Sichone, published in The Post newspaper three days after her death on 24 August 1998.
‘The anger ignited in Lucy’s death’, Mwape continued, ‘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.’
The substance of Mwape’s message 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. Yet the content is profoundly meaningful and remains as relevant today as it was over 20 years ago when Mwape, one of Zambia’s finest journalists who tragically died in a car accident exactly a year after Lucy’s death, wrote it. In a Zambia where many citizens have not only allowed ignorance to be the guiding darkness in their lives but also succumbed to fear and adopted the sterile attitude of a spectator, amidst a sustained assault on good governance, democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law, the country could do with more active citizens like Lucy.
By this, I mean citizens who act as agents or catalysts of positive action in dealing with the issues that matter most, who question everything and everyone, fearlessly, especially if they are leading us or making claims to want to lead us, who refuse to comply with repression, and who, as part of holding elected leaders to account, seek responses to the five questions that the late British politician Anthony Benn liked asking whenever he met anybody with power: ‘What power have you got?’ ‘Who gave it to you?’ ‘In whose interest do you exercise it?’ ‘To whom are you accountable?’ ‘How can we get rid of you?’
In stating that ‘We are a rhetoric people and that is what Lucy was not’, Mwape, perhaps guided by the conviction that the relevance of death lies in its impact on those that live, was launching an earnest call to positive action, a call for people to move beyond rhetoric, to abhor and be outraged by wrongdoing, and to actively protest against injustice, corruption, abuse, glaring inequality, and government incompetence. For that is the kind of the purpose-driven life that Lucy led, one which, even in her death, towers strong and unshakable.
One of Zambia’s most courageous citizens who spoke truth to power, enriched democracy and was at the forefront of the fight for social justice, Lucy Sichone would have turned 66 this week had she not ceased to breathe. Born in the mining town of Kitwe on 15 May 1954, Lucy’s formative years were shaped heavily by her family’s loyalty to humanity’s moral values, her convent secondary school education and the then wider practice of the state-driven ideology for nationhood, one that was underpinned by respect for one another’s dignity and humanity – humanism. These influences were to lay a strong foundation in Lucy’s life for the effective development of rewarding personal qualities.
Among these individual attributes included sharp intellect, great energy, discipline and hard work, diligence and willingness to learn, genuine humility, love and compassion for one’s fellow human beings, patience, self-sacrifice, and loyalty to principle. Others were character, judgement, devotion to the truth, a deep sensitivity to the respect that the dignity of every human being deserves, the strength of convictions respected even by one’s adversaries, and faith – in human improvement, in life in the future, in the power of ideas and reason in achieving consensus and justice, in the importance of values and in people.
After effortlessly earning a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Zambia, courtesy of a government sponsorship, Lucy won the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship in 1978, the first female Zambian to achieve that feat. Awarded annually to two Zambians, the Rhodes Scholarship is an international postgraduate award that enables outstanding young people from across the world – chosen for their embodiment of academic excellence, moral force of character, instincts to lead, and commitment to service – to study at the University of Oxford in England.
Three years later, Lucy left Oxford armed with one of its most coveted qualifications, the degree of Philosophy, Politics and Economics, to return home in 1981. Her decision to overlook the lures of the developed world and return to a country whose economy was in serious decline distinguished her as a patriot. It also demonstrated her commitment to the conviction that the acquisition of specialist knowledge should result in its application to causes and communities that need it most. In the service of this belief, Lucy, once in Zambia, became a passionate and fierce advocate for social justice, human rights and institutional reform, helping drive the country’s policy direction. But it was her courage in an environment or era (1991-2001) that witnessed several state-linked assassinations of political adversaries that set her apart.
Facing real threat to her life, Lucy refused to be paralysed into inaction by fear and fiercely criticised the government. She became the most notable and influential voice in public life, finding expression in a weekly column – Lucy Sichone on Monday – published in The Post. Between 1993 and 1998, Lucy tackled wide-ranging issues affecting the country, including poor governance, corruption, state brutality, injustice and abuse of state power. A thorn in the side of the ruling authorities, her writing inspired people to oppose the institutionalisation of cowardice as the unofficial national ideology and to take a critical stance on the country’s leadership. The column established Lucy as a tireless advocate for human dignity.
In her professional capacity as a lawyer, Lucy took on high-profile cases, defending citizens charged with treason and espionage. Responding to well-founded concerns that her speaking truth to power put her life at risk, she declared that ‘the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights make it a sacred duty for me to defend them to the death’. Lucy challenged repressive legislation such as the Public Order Act, which required groups to get permission from the police for public meetings and had often been used to clamp down on political dissent. When the Supreme Court, in January 1996, struck down that specific provision as unconstitutional, Lucy hailed the judgement as one that ‘shall be forever cherished by all freedom and peace-loving Zambians’. However, then Vice-President Godfrey Miyanda and the Minister of Legal Affairs, Remy Mushota (who had also studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, courtesy of the Rhodes Scholarship in 1976!), denounced the ruling, attacked the judges as supporters of the opposition United National Independence Party (UNIP) and its president Kenneth Kaunda, and promised to table in Parliament an amendment bill that would effectively restore the removed section.
In her weekly newspaper column, Lucy expressed her disgust at Miyanda, especially as his life had earlier been literally saved by one of the judges he was now condemning when he had been charged with treason by Kaunda’s government in the 1980s. Calling his position ‘hypocritical, false and cheap’, she likened Miyanda to former Nigerian autocrat Sani Abacha and chastised members of parliament who were pushing for the removal of the judges who had made the landmark judgement. In addition to criticising the Vice-President for expressing his views through a privileged platform, Lucy further made mockery of the Speaker of the National Assembly’s regalia, relics of the colonial era.
‘Miyanda’, she wrote, ‘could only make his cowardly statement and attack a decision made by men of (high) stature, dignity and integrity from [Parliament,] behind the protective skirts of grandmother [Robinson] Nabulyato’. Nabulyato, the Speaker, was in fact male! So incensed by her scathing criticism were Vice-President Miyanda, MPs and the Speaker that Parliament bestowed unto itself judicial powers and sentenced Lucy – alongside two editors from The Post – to indefinite imprisonment for alleged breach of parliamentary privileges, a sentence that the High Court later overturned. For Lucy, law, like leadership, was an instrument for service, not control. She proactively used the law as a shield for the weak and the ordinary citizen and not a sword for the elite and those in power.
When not confronting the state through words, Lucy did so physically. She once parked her vehicle across the road to block a government minister’s car in order to confront him over the plight of women who earned their living by crushing stones and whom the government was harassing on public health concerns. Lucy argued that the women’s trade represented the terminal state of the economy, which gave women few options for more sustainable livelihoods. She also pointed out the long-term social implications for the women’s children, who often accompanied their mothers as they worked long hours in the sun. But perhaps her most vivid and unforgettable act of moral courage was her public confrontation with President Frederick Chiluba over his administration’s human rights violations.
On 23 August 1997, in a move that highlighted the government’s increasingly violent suppression of civil liberties, police opened fire on a mass rally held in Kabwe and called by the main opposition party, UNIP, nearly killing its leader and founding president of Zambia, Kaunda. Another opposition leader, Liberal Progressive Front’s Rodger Chongwe, needed emergency surgery after the same bullet that wounded Kaunda hit him. On Chiluba’s return from the Far East, where he had been when the shooting occurred, Lucy led a lone protest against the attempted assassination at the Lusaka International Airport, welcoming the President with a placard inscribed with the words ‘Welcome to Zambia, Our Own Sharpeville Massacre, 23rd August 1997, Kabwe’.
Lucy’s placard compared the incident to one of the most violent periods in South Africa’s history when, in 1960, state police killed 69 black South Africans peacefully protesting against the excesses of the apartheid regime in the town of Sharpeville. When hundreds of the governing Movement for Multiparty Democracy supporters who had thronged the airport attempted to physically assault her, Lucy retorted: ‘I came to welcome my President just like any other citizen. What is wrong with that?’ Police promptly bundled her away for ‘disturbing the peace’. In carrying out this protest, Lucy may have been spurred by the example of another outstanding activist of Zambia’s independence struggle, Julia Mulenga Nsofwa, popularly known as Julia Chikamoneka, who, in March 1960 at the same site, Lusaka International Airport, undressed before British Colonial Secretary, Ian Macleod, as a protest against the continuation of colonial rule and a demand for self-determination. As the American actor and filmmaker Sean Penn once observed (though with reference to someone else), Lucy was ‘among the courageous independent spirits that democracies are built to protect and cannot exist without’.
Lucy was also a strategist and visionary. She institutionalised the promotion of human rights and civic awareness by establishing, in 1993, the Zambia Civic Education Association, which, over two decades after her death, is still pursuing the goals of its founder. It is impossible to summarise her life as an activist, a leader and lawyer in a few words, but it was as if she knew that her life would be short and that she had to make every moment count. In the words of the Japanese Buddhist and philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda, Lucy refused to ‘just grow old and die’, and instead chose to engage in serious soul-searching, to discover the purpose of existence and to lead an impactful life ‘of battles well fought and wonderfully diverse experiences’:
‘Youth is a truly wonderful thing. Unfortunately, though, this is often something that is hard to appreciate when we are young. Life passes by quickly. Before we know it, we are old. That is why in our youth we should be as active as we possibly can. Rather than a life of blank pages, live a life crammed full of memories – of battles well fought and wonderfully diverse experiences. Not to leave behind any history, to just grow old and die, is a sad way to live.’
Although she neither sought nor occupied public office, Lucy constructively affected it through activism and a weekly newspaper column in a manner that embodied the very essence of public life: selfless service, capacity for effective leadership, moral force of character, and making the greatest difference to people’s lives in areas that matter most. For her, an Oxford education was neither prestige nor a certificate to self-congratulation, the relentless pursuit of private gain or accumulation of personal wealth, but a call to the practical expression of the essential values on which the Rhodes Scholarship rests. Forthright and upstanding, Lucy was a non-imposing figure with an imposing mind and remains, within a tradition of political and human rights activism and protest, Zambia’s most distinguished dissident since independence in 1964.