History is uncool in Zimbabwe. Not giving a toss about the liberation struggle or the legacy of fallen freedom fighters is a badge of honor amongst many youths. It is our version of ‘pop culture’ to resent historical narratives, to demean war veterans and snort in derision at any reference to the sacrifices of our heroes and heroines.
I understand that for many youths, it is hard to make a distinction between ZANU PF and the liberation struggle. It is hard, but not impossible. I understand too, that for many youths, showing total disregard for the liberation struggle is their way of flipping a middle finger at ZANU PF – I get that. And I can excuse it because it is the manner of youth to be impetuous, uncritical of issues and to fall in with the ‘cool crowd’.
In the context of Zimbabwean politics, the ‘cool crowd’ is undoubtedly the MDC (particularly the Tsvangirai-led one). And as a party, it is the MDC –T, more than any other grouping that has largely institutionalized this disdain for the history of our liberation struggle. I understand that this was necessitated by the need to show opposition to ZANU PF, which used history to claim political legitimacy and glorify itself in response to fierce opposition and general disenchantment.
While I can understand that for many youths it is hard to make a distinction between ZANU PF and the liberation struggle – I think it is completely indefensible that the MDC failed or refused to make that critical distinction.
By failing to make that distinction, the MDC left ZANU PF completely unchallenged in its self-serving, willful distortion of the nation’s collective history and, worse still, in its attempt to manipulate the collective memory of young Zimbabweans.
My problem is I want to remember and honor our freedom fighters without courting the ire of the ‘cool crowd’, which has decided that our liberation struggle past doesn’t, and shouldn’t, matter.
My problem is I want to remember and honor our freedom fighters without appearing like I’ve been brainwashed and marinated in propagandist rhetoric.
Is there a label-free space for people like me in the discourses that dominate our politics, our consciousness and our constructions of identity as citizens?
MDC could and should have done more to provide a counter-narrative and a counter-memory to rebut ZANU PF’s skewed ‘patriotic history’ (as described by Terence Ranger). Many young people will be familiar with the teachings of patriotic history even though they may not be familiar with that phrase. Here are a few descriptions of patriotic history so that we have a shared frame of reference on the topic.
As described by Prof. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, patriotic history’s teachings were mobilized to fragment the people of Zimbabwe into patriots, war veterans, puppets, traitors, sellouts, born-frees and enemies of the state.
In the words of Blessing Miles Tendi, patriotic history radically altered the nature of political debate in Zimbabwe where differences of opinion, over principles or details, were smothered over by accusations of “selling out” whilst all political activity outside the realm of ZANU PF orthodoxy was delegitimised.
And in the words of the following scholars Brian Raftopoulos, Sarah Chiumbu, Prof. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Norma Kriger and Terence Ranger, patriotic history was a divisive historical narrative that presented Zimbabweans and the world with a dramatically narrowed nationalist history in order to legitimise an intensely narrow and bigoted notion of what it means to be a patriotic Zimbabwean; it involved a particularly frenzied recreation of the liberation discourse in very narrow, xenophobic, racist and nativist terms ranged against whites and those belonging to the MDC, which was seen as a front for colonialism, and it portrayed the African opposition as puppets of Western imperialist and white settler interests; whilst resenting the disloyal questions raised by historians of nationalism and regarded as irrelevant any history that is not political.
Now, what was the MDC doing whilst ZANU PF was busy panel-beating history and contorting it into this narrative called patriotic history?
The MDC was busy insisting that the past didn’t matter anymore; that history was not a big deal and that the liberation struggle was too unimportant to dwell upon when there were more pressing issues at hand. “We don’t need history lessons,” they said, “we are for rule of law, property rights, good governance and democracy.“
But if you are for rule of law, shouldn’t the principle of natural justice matter to you? Would natural justice not entail caring about and remedying disproportionate land ownership?
If you are for property rights, shouldn’t concerns about historical land dispossession be central to addressing legitimate grievances of the dispossessed through land reform or by other means?
If you are for good governance and democracy, shouldn’t equitable distribution of national resources be an aspect of governing well and being democratic?
To paraphrase Blessing Miles Tendi, MDC-T dismally failed to articulate for the Zimbabwean public an alternative to patriotic history because ‘they misjudged the extent to which the public was swayed by the nationalist narrative’ and ultimately, they misjudged “the potency of patriotic history which lay in the fact that it drew on real and not imagined grievances.” The land issue was real and raw and it required the MDC to give a toss or two about it.
Instead, the MDC allowed ZANU PF to hijack our national history and never once shouted ‘Stop, thief!’ because they did not believe that what was being stolen mattered enough for them to give chase or sound the alarm.
But history matters. It is potent. It is political. And it is power.
Historical narratives can make and unmake heroes/heroines; they can erase and fabricate events and actors, they can sideline, malign and forget. Historical narratives are transferred and transmitted from one generation to the next and they become the collective memory of subsequent generations.
My problem is I want to remember and honor our freedom fighters … but I don’t want to remember lies, half-truths, exaggerations and skewed facts wherein (as Blessing Miles Tendi puts it) ‘themes and events that do not serve ZANU PF’s agenda are downplayed or misrepresented’.
I think the MDC should have done more than merely boycott (admittedly ZANUfied) national commemorative events such as the Independence and Heroes days (which selectively commemorate only those heroes/heroines that ZANU PF deems worthy). They should have offered a rebuttal.
To my thinking, the MDC should have put up more of a fight, it should have insisted on seeing and making a distinction between ZANU PF and the liberation struggle history. It should have insisted on claiming the liberation struggle whose sacrifices were for all and whose triumph belongs to all, rather than allowing ZANU PF’s historical exclusivism to go unchallenged.
I want to say a heartfelt “thank you” to our (genuine) war veterans who survived and to reverently commemorate, venerate and celebrate those who died.
But I don’t want to remember the past through the lens of patriotic history by which (in the words of Joan Wardrop) ZANU PF has ‘systematically deployed the politics of difference, of marginalization and forgetting, silencing wherever possible the memories and dissonant voices of those who recall different.’
I want to remember and honor our freedom fighters, and I want to be able to do it without politics getting in the way.
I want to remember and honor our freedom fighters through a collective memory that records as truthfully as possible the events of the past. After all, as a socio-political construct, collective memory is a version of the past, selected to be remembered by a given community in order to advance its goals and serve its self-perception (as stated by Motti Neiger).
I want to remember and honor our freedom fighters because in my heart of hearts – I am deeply grateful for the sacrifices they made.
May their souls rest in peace, may the principles they fought for and the aspirations they died for become a lived reality – and mostly, may their true stories be told without the taint of political expediency.