A country’s moral dilemma over liberation icon

AS AN unequalled avalanche of emotion engulfed the national landscape last week following the shocking death of Retired General Solomon Mujuru, there were certain discernible features that still refused to be obfuscated. The nation would do well to take notice of them rather than to bury our collective heads in the sand, like the proverbial ostrich.

Observing general discussions among Zimbabweans across the whole spectrum, it became clear that the tragic incident presented a moral dilemma of great magnitude. Recognising the immense contribution of the General toward the achievement of Zimbabwe’s independence, the vast majority of Zimbabweans poured their hearts out sympathising with the Mujuru family and sharing a huge sense of loss of a man they considered a hero.

Yet there were also pockets of dissent; chambers of doubt in the midst of the collective chorus of adulation.

It is not the purpose of this article to engage in the debate of heroism. I believe that decision (whether or not one is a hero) lies in the hearts and minds of the people and in this regard, events of the last few days tell a story that is there for all to observe. What is sought to be done here is to identify and assess the narratives that can be identified from this tragic episode and why they are important in the ever-present nation-building project. To refuse to acknowledge these narratives and pretend they do not exist simply because they are less palatable at this juncture or because we disagree with them would constitute recklessness.

Liberation Narrative

The first and overwhelmingly common narrative, which we can conveniently call the liberation hero narrative, is represented by the almost unprecedented outpouring of emotion across large sections of Zimbabwean society – both locally and abroad. Like Joshua Nkomo before him, Mujuru has the distinction of having drawn an almost universal crowd of mourners who genuinely believed in his heroism. This included people from different political persuasions – a feat that few, if any, of the living leaders can ever lay claim to in life as in death.

It demonstrated that Mujuru was perceived by the majority not simply as a Zanu PF leader but as a national figure whose role and contribution transcended party lines. It showed a man who both in life and death possessed a rare kind of power over people. This narrative did not, however, overlook his flaws and it should not be seen as such. It recognised that like all people, the man had his flaws but the narrative balanced the positives and negatives and chose to privilege the positives.

There has been a sense of unity among political leaders who otherwise spent most of their time fighting each other in mourning the demise of a political and military giant. Indeed, he has been hailed as a hero in particular for his sterling contributions to the liberation struggle that brought independence to Zimbabwe in 1980.

The second narrative, which is evidenced by three threads, emanates from pockets of Zimbabweans who do not find favour with the hero label. This dominant line in this narrative is that a hero can also morph into a villain if previously heroic deeds are followed by dreadful conduct. This narrative acknowledges the significant role played by leaders of the liberation war but goes on to point out that this was followed by acts of betrayal in the post-independence era.

Gukurahundi Narrative

The first of these threads of discontent arises from the Gukurahundi atrocities in Matabeleland and the Midlands in the 1980s. This Gukurahundi narrative contains the common lament that authors of the atrocities, however significant their past contributions may be, can never be regarded as heroes. In this narrative, the authorship of Gukurahundi is invariably attributed to the Zanu PF leadership as a collective and sometimes, in the extreme cases it has to be said, to a more generalised and amorphous group referred to as “Shonas” – reference to Shona-speaking people.

Where guilt is not direct, it is attributed by association. When there were no positive acts, liability is attributed by omission, i.e. that either they were directly involved or that they did not do enough to stop it.

In the case of General Mujuru, although his friend and comrade, Dumiso Dabengwa, the ZAPU leader who was a prominent victim of the onslaught by the state during that period has spoken to absolve him of responsibility for the atrocities, a number of people using the Gukurahundi narrative are not sufficiently persuaded. Their argument is that as head of the national army at the time, he surely knew or ought to have known of what was happening in the region.

Property Rights Narrative

The second thread of discontent arises from the white farming community — that being the constituency most affected by the land reform exercise carried out over the last ten years. Indeed, the symbolism that the fire that consumed the General occurred at a farmhouse located on a farm from which a white commercial farmer was forcibly evicted is too obvious to be overlooked.

It is not too far-fetched to say that even though it may be considered uncultural and morally indecent to celebrate someone’s demise, there may have been others within the dispossessed white farming community saying the events are an indication that ‘what goes around comes around’. Admittedly this may be extreme but still, it is a sentiment that cannot be ignored.

Economic Decline Narrative

The third thread is both a combination of the two but includes in addition, the more generalised view of Zanu PF’s culpability in causing the country’s poor fortunes after independence and especially in recent years. It is a narrative that says past heroes have negated the gains of independence rather than ameliorate the conditions of the people. This is more a reflection of general opposition and resentment towards Zanu PF so that anyone who is considered part of the establishment is regarded as an anti-hero, regardless of what they have achieved in the past. So in the present case, it is not so much a reaction against the General in his personal capacity but against the political party in which he was a key player.

There are important observations to be drawn from these narratives:

First, the nation will forever be burdened by a huge moral dilemma regarding the champions of liberation from colonialism. Are they heroes at all? To what extent is heroism overtaken and obfuscated by later deeds that some people regard as un-heroic?

It seems to me the nation will almost always be divided on this question. The reactions witnessed this week give a foretaste to the living liberation champions of what people think of them now and how they will be viewed in death. Commendably, Zimbabweans largely remain united by the sense of achievement around the liberation struggle, itself a defining moment in the country’s biography. But there is also a feeling of betrayal by the liberation leaders who must do some self-introspection that see if they can salvage their reputations.

Few, if any will probably manage to garner the kind of support that the General did on his death – indeed the narratives of discontent, which were in the minority in this case are probably and will be in the majority and louder in respect of the remaining liberation leaders. Being alive means they have a chance, albeit slim, to redeem themselves.

Second, the cries from sections in Matabeleland and the Midlands over the Gukurahundi atrocities demonstrate that this sore point in the national psyche cannot be overlooked any longer. There is a genuine feeling of anger and grief among the people who were affected, either directly or indirectly by the sordid events of that period. Zanu PF and the national leadership need to confront this issue and deal with it conclusively.

My observation is that even long after the alleged authors of those events have departed this world, this matter will forever haunt Zimbabwe. Already there is ill-feeling among Zimbabweans of a certain generation and this is evident in the often vitriolic attacks and serious verbal jousting that takes place in cyberspace among other forums. It’s only a matter of time before these clashes spill from cyberspace into the physical spaces. The national leadership needs to take responsibility over this issue.

Third, one also observes an unhealthy tendency to generalise in our politics, which frequently results in weak understanding and appreciation of politics in Zimbabwe, even among the general populace. The third sub-narrative that we have seen above has the weakness that it is too generalised. When critics argue that the General was part of the establishment and should have done more, they are not arguing from a position of information but rather that of speculation and erroneous deduction.

Merely that one is in Zanu PF – they have not done enough and they are always wrong. Conversely, with politics seen through this lens merely because one is in the popular MDC, therefore he is doing well and is always right. These are dangerous and disingenuous generalisations. There must be a reason greater than his liberation war heroics why General Mujuru commanded respect even among opposition leaders and their supporters. He was seen as a voice of reason and restraint in the present political climate – able, we hear, to restrain the extremists within Zanu PF. Perhaps his detractors will come to appreciate his role more now that he’s gone.

Fourth, no matter the recognised justifications of the land redistribution exercise there can be no doubt that there is a constituency, however small, that will forever feel aggrieved by what happened. Despite the political rhetoric, I do not think even the national leadership is convinced that this matter is concluded.

Two distinct aspects of the land reform programme need highlighting: first, there is the issue of the land itself which remains contested both legally and politically and second is the issue of immovable and movable property on land, clearly a legal matter that should be easily settled. Even if the government sticks to its argument that it will not pay for the land itself, it is impossible to find any serious justification for not adequately compensating the farmer in respect of buildings and other movable property such as machinery and livestock which were unjustly expropriated.

I do not see this issue dying out anytime soon and like the Gukurahundi problem, this matter will spill over the haunt future generations just like the colonial violations of the 19th century haunted the white settler community a hundred years later.

Overall, the death of General Mujuru has given us deeper insights into the psyche of our nation or more specifically, the different aspects of the national psyche.

There is part of the national psyche that wants to recognise and celebrate our heroes; an aspect of our psyche that recognises the flaws in men and women but faithful to the age-old principle of wafawanaka, wants to retain the beautiful parts and place them above the bad.

There is also part of our psyche that is traumatised by past episodes of madness and deliberate violation of human freedoms. Here blameworthiness is collectivised and placed on the shoulders of everyone deemed part of the then establishment. This itself may not be fair on individuals but it represents a cry for a matter that requires dealing with.

We have witnessed this week a moral dilemma for the nation. I for one was swayed by the celebratory aspects not only of the liberation war hero but also of a man who represented an important counter-balancing factor within one of Zimbabwe’s most influential political organisations. There is a collective sense of apprehension of how the void his loss has caused will affect politics.

I have also, over the last few days, come to understand and appreciate the narratives of discontent represented by some compartments of the nation. It would be reckless if we did not attend to those issues. It would be clear negligence toward future generations if we dismissed them out of hand. It would be a great legacy if the demise of the military and political giant caused us to think more deeply and act more decisively on these national questions.

Alex T. Magaisa is based at Kent Law School, University of Kent, and can be reached at wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk

Alex Magaisa is a senior lecturer at the Kent Law School. Prior to joining KLS, he worked for the Jersey Financial Services Commission, the financial services regulator in Jersey. His research interests lie mainly in financial services regulation, law of corporate groups and the effects of IP Laws on developing countries. Alex takes a keen interest on legal and political issues pertaining to Zimbabwe and Africa generally.

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