Remembering Zambia’s Lucy Sichone, conscience of the nation

Yesterday Zambians woke to the delightful news that the late Lucy Sichone had become the first female Rhodes Scholar to have a portrait in Rhodes House. This is the result of work by Kelsey Murrell, herself a recent Rhodes Scholar, who was disturbed to learn there wasn’t a portrait of a woman in Rhodes House, in spite of the many women who’ve received the scholarship and gone on to do great things.

We certainly have our qualms about the likes of Lucy Sichone being associated with John Cecil Rhodes’ terrible legacy, and this site has written quite a lot about that (I have also contributed to the debate here). But given that there isn’t a Wikipedia page up yet for Lucy and the fact that this gesture by Rhodes House will posthumously catapult her into the global limelight, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to write a few words about her and what she stood for.

Lucy Sichone was born in the Zambian mining town of Kitwe in 1954. She was born at a time when it was greatly frowned upon for a girl to attend school. To get around this societal sanction, Lucy’s parents shaved her head bald to make it easier for her to attend school. Perhaps this way, she could pass for a boy and face less ridicule. And this, according to her daughter, fomented within Lucy a bold, no fear spirit that would typify her in later life.  In 1978, she became the first Zambian woman to receive a Rhodes scholarship and went on to read for a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. She was one of a handful women in her course.

Upon finishing her studies, Ms. Sichone returned to Zambia where she embarked upon a career as a lawyer focused on human rights issues. She represented people in the village whose land had been grabbed from them either by the State or by private citizens. She represented widows who had their property grabbed upon the passing away of their husbands – herself having earlier been a victim of this type of injustice. She represented people who had their rights violated by the State. Most of this she did for free.

In 1993, during the pivotal period when Zambia had just reverted to multiparty democracy and the ruling class were still using one-party strategies to stifle dissent, Lucy Sichone formed the Zambia Civic Education Association (ZCEA). ZCEA’s aim was to spread the gospel of human and democratic rights and to remind Zambians that it was not enough to have democracy on paper. We also had to make the demand, every minute and every hour, for our rights. ZCEA formed civic education clubs within secondary schools – her idea was to capture the imagination of the young whilst they could still dream. I am a beneficiary of Lucy’s dream having joined the civic education club at Munali Secondary School in Lusaka and later serving as Vice President of the club at David Kaunda Secondary School in 2001.

Perhaps because Lucy Sichone was never content with just idling by and watching the politicians desecrate the constitution, she decided to go into politics. The kind of person that Lucy was can be gleaned from the political party she decided to join. When everyone else was running towards the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), the party that had just won the momentous 1991 elections that removed Kenneth Kaunda, Ms. Sichone decided to join the United National Independence Party (UNIP). UNIP, having ruled Zambia for 27 years, had lost the 1991 elections and its political fortunes were in decline. But for Lucy, political office was not the aim. Her calculus was probably that an association with UNIP would help spread her message about safe guarding human rights and holding politicians accountable. After all, civil society organizations at that time did not have much of a following. Everyone looked up to politicians. But as expected, Lucy’s no compromise attitude unnerved people within UNIP’s inner circle. She left UNIP in 1994.

Next she took her message to the newspapers and joined the then Weekly Post as a columnist. It was during her time at the Post that two memorable events happened that thrust her into the limelight and confirmed her position as the conscience of the nation. In February 1996, Ms. Sichone wrote an article titled “Miyanda has forgotten about need for justice”. Godfrey Miyanda was then Vice President and leader of government business in parliament. An order to arrest Ms. Sichone along with the newspaper’s managing editor and chief editor was issued. The three immediately went into hiding with the latter two eventually giving themselves up. But Ms. Sichone refused to do so and continued to write ever more scathing columns whilst in hiding. In one of them she emphatically declared, “the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights make it a sacred duty for me to defend them to the death.”

She eventually gave herself up and a sort of truce existed between her and the authorities. But this truce was momentary. In August of 1997, Kenneth Kaunda, the former president and leader of UNIP was shot at by the police while attempting to address a rally in the town of Kabwe. Many were arrested and injured during the fracas that ensued. All this happened while the president, Frederick Chiluba, was on a foreign trip and upon his return, Lucy Sichone snuck into the international airport and flashed the president a placard which read “Welcome to Zambia, Our Own Sharpeville Massacre”. This was in reference to the Sharpeville Massacre incident in South Africa in 1960. Needless to say that the president was not pleased.

Lucy Sichone died on August 24 in 1998. She was only 44. When she died, the Weekly Post newspaper ran the headline “Zambia mourns Sichone” and the following weeks followed with articles and columns memorializing her from across the country. The civil society movement tried to petition the government to accord her a state funeral but, as expected, the authorities declined. We are all left to wonder what other brave and inspiring things she would have done had she lived longer.

I had the rare privilege of meeting Lucy Sichone in 1998, the year she died, during a prize giving ceremony for students who had done a lot to advance civic education at their schools. She gave me a certificate carrying her immortal signature and asked all the recipients that day to carry her dream even further.

The portrait of Lucy Banda Sichone by Deirdre Saunder
The portrait of Lucy Banda Sichone by Deirdre Saunder
Grieve Chelwa

Grieve Chelwa is a Contributing Editor at Africa is a Country and currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and visiting fellow at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) in Johannesburg.

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