By Dzikamai Bere
Zimbabwe is set to embark on a major memorialisation project named Liberation City.
The project will house among others, the Museum of African Liberation.
This will an addition to a number of memorialisation project in Zimbabwe which include the Natural History Museum in Bulawayo, the National Heroes Acres in Harare and recently the Statue of Mbuya Nehanda at the intersection of Samora Machel Street and Julius Nyerere Way.
Memorialisation in Zimbabwe has failed to avoid controversy, perhaps a sign of a major defect in how we handle such initiatives.
Just after its unveiling, Mbuya Nehanda’s statue became popular with activists from the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) as they approached the statue with petitions for better working conditions.
As reported by NewZimbabwe.com, Democracy and Governance expert Glen Mpani warned government may just have built an iconic platform for protests in the mould of Egypt’s Tahrir Square, the main location for political demonstrations in the North African country.
Said Mpani on Twitter: “I am not a prophet, what I know is the Zimbabwean government has created a ‘Tahrir square’ where citizens will converge to protest against the Mnangagwa government in the fullness of time. On that day, the ‘bones of Mbuya Nehanda will rise’.”
On June 2 2021, a few days after the statue was unveiled, ARTUZ tweeted, “We promised and we delivered. We were at Mbuya Nehanda statue drawing inspiration to #SaveOurEducationZw A season of sustained protests to #SaveOurEducationZw is upon us.”
At the writing of this article, climbing up the statue bridge had been banned with a chain/string around it.
And yet this is not the first project to generate controversy.
The Joshua Nkomo statue originally positioned at Karigamombe building was stopped following protests and complaints that erecting the statue at ‘Karikamombe’ was an insult to the memory of Father Zimbabwe.
Even as the statue was ultimately erected in Bulawayo, it faced many hurdles including vandalism, protests and complaints by the family that they were not consulted with others saying the statue looked nothing like Father Zimbabwe.
But perhaps the worst humiliation of our national memorialisation projects was the refusal by Robert Mugabe to be buried at the Heroes Acre.
Over the years, critics have always stated that the Heroes Acre had been desecrated by the Zanu PF approach of treating it like a Zanu PF project and declaring even their most notorious criminals like Chenjerai Hunzvi to be national heroes.
The shrine lost its sanctity.
Robert Mugabe, the founding father of Zimbabwe refused to be buried there in a conflict that has led to threats of exhumation as the government, hiding behind the chiefs argues that his remains must be interred at the shrine.
Now, as Zimbabwe moves to what is potentially its biggest memorialisation project, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on what is going wrong and how that can be corrected.
The nation Zimbabwe has never been born.
It remained an idea during the liberation struggle but the leaders of Zimbabwe have failed dismally in building a nation. The country has remained severely polarised.
Closely linked to that is the privatisation of national memory by a small group of people who claim to be the custodians of the liberation memory.
The paradox is that while Robert Mugabe later refused to be buried at the Heroes Acre, he himself had presided over this privatisation national memory by Zanu PF.
This privatisation is even legislated.
According to the National Heroes Act, heroes’ status is conferred only on the dead, not on a living person.
It is the president of Zimbabwe who confers heroes’ status where he “considers that any deceased person who was a citizen of Zimbabwe has deserved well of his country on account of his outstanding, distinctive and distinguished service to Zimbabwe.”
The president may, by notice in the Government Gazette, designate such a person as a national, provincial or district hero of Zimbabwe, depending on perceived level of contribution.
In practice, however, the Zanu PF politburo first makes recommendations to the President before he decides on hero status. Some illustrious liberation leaders like Ndabaningi Sithole and James Chikerema were overlooked for national hero status presumably because they had fallen out with Zanu PF.
There have been incessant calls to bring sanity and professionalism to these projects.
But as we embark on another major project, we must ask ourselves why there is not authentic inclusive national ownership of our liberation memory?
And why does the dominant political party continue to privatise our heritage?
The answer is in the dynamics of power.
Memorialisation projects can become an extension of power struggles, instead of being tools for reconciliation.
The struggle for control over the national or collective memory lies at the heart of post-conflict policies.
Many survivors, democrats and human rights practitioners bemoan the fact that the post-conflict story of the past is often appropriated by the state.
The voices of less powerful victims are drowned.
This has the effect on how and who will be remembered, what will be remembered, what will be taught in schools and whether all the voices will be heard.
The hegemony of the State over the past affects not only our understanding of the past but also the way in which we encounter the present and approach the future.
Civic engagement is an indispensable ingredient for a successful preservation of our memory.
Scholars and human rights activists regret the fact that there is an important citizenship role in memorials that is ‘often lacking from high level strategies that risk alienating those that we seek to help by complex legal or bureaucratic procedures’.
As one activist pointed out: “The success of a memorial should be measured by the reactions it provokes; by civil debate, dialog effect, educational value and the response of constituent groups of stakeholders, including victims and their families, perpetrators, civic society (schools, artists, NGOs), government and other tourists.”
As the Liberation City emerges, it is time for our leadership to turn the tide and put to an end the legacy of the privatisation of national memory.
Memorialisation should be viewed as a justice issue, not as a political issue.
A memory of liberation is useless if we lose touch with the liberation values.
When the liberation war was prosecuted, it was for the liberation of all and not just a few.
We , therefore, must tell the full story and we must tell it in an inclusive way.
We must include the human rights story of the liberation. And we must note that this liberation is an ongoing story that include the story of such heroes as Morgan Tsvangirai who fought for post-independence democratisation.
A Liberation City of selective amnesia in a country that knows no liberation is an insult to the values of the liberation. And there is an opportunity for us to cleanse this memory and open it up to all the African people.
*Dzikamai Bere is the national director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) and the deputy chairperson of the National Transitional Justice Working Group. This article was first published in The Defender of April 2022. To request your copy, write to email@example.com