Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Tribute to Congressman Donald Payne (1934-2012)

U.S. Representative Donald Payne (D. NJ), the first black member of the U.S. Congress from New Jersey, known for his work on human rights and on behalf of the poor, and one of the best friends of Africa in the House of Representatives, died March 6, at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, NJ.  Payne, a 12-term member of the House was undergoing treatment for colon cancer, but continued to represent his constituents in the House until his health recently took a turn for the worse.  Payne was 77 at the time of his death.

For those who follow African affairs, Payne will perhaps be best remembered for his efforts to restore democracy and human rights on the African continent.  A member of the House committees on education and foreign affairs, he served as chair of the House subcommittee on Africa, and was a frequent visitor to the continent.

I met Congressman Payne for the first time when he visited Zimbabwe in 2010.  I was impressed, not just with his encyclopedic knowledge of the countries, politics, and history of Africa, but most of all by his low-key humility and practical approach to life.  That he was an ardent supporter of basic human rights and dignity for all people was apparent in the way he interacted with everyone he encountered, regardless of their rank or station.  He was as comfortable with a cab driver as he was with a cabinet minister, and treated each with equal dignity and respect.

He was also, though, tough and uncompromising on the issues that mattered to him.  To him, human rights were inherent at birth, and no one had the right to trample on them.  He was not strident in his support of these rights.  He believed that engagement was the key to improving the plight of the downtrodden; not conflict, and for that I could not help but respect and be impressed by him.

Words alone are insufficient to express the true meaning of his loss.  The poor, minorities, and other dispossessed in America will miss him; the peoples of Africa have lost the best friend they ever had in the U.S. Congress; the world will miss his voice of reason and care.