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The optics of heroism in Zimbabwe: Who is a National Hero?

The honour of the national hero status to the late Zimbabwean music superstar Oliver Mtukudzi sparked a long-standing debate on who deserves the national hero status. Mtukudzi was one of the most celebrated entertainers in the southern African country.

During the 1990s Mtukudzi composed a song titled “What is a hero” as a dedication to time fellow musicians like Solomon Skuza, Safirio Madzikatire, James Chimombe just to mention a few had died and yet there had been no recognition by the government—either state-assisted burial or national hero status. The declaration of the hero status—be it at district, the provincial and national level has been a prerogative of the ruling party ZANU PF. Tuku’s song questioned this. Philanthropists like Jairos Jiri surely deserved some form of recognition.

The legendary musician breathed his last in January 2019 at a time Zimbabwe was facing one of its worst economic crisis since dollarization. A 150% increase in the price of fuel and the attendant spike in the cost of living had stirred the widespread protests. The state responded by unleashing security forces who reportedly went on a rampage that resulted in fatalities, maiming and sexual abuses on girls and women.

Mtukudzi’s hero status notwithstanding his several accolades was seen as a route to escapism seeking to diffuse the rising political temperatures. The January 2019 protests remain one of the growing lists of blemishes on President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration.

A few months before Tuku’s death, long-time leader Robert Mugabe’s demise left authorities with an egg on their faces after his family made a shock announcement to the effect that the deceased preferred his remains to be interred at his rural home in Kutama. This came a few days after the government had engaged contractors to set up a mausoleum in honour of Mugabe who had become the incumbent leader’s mentor-cum-tormentor.

Mugabe had since independence officiated over the burial of many heroes save for his twilight years when you would miss the events due to frailty.

As Zimbabwe commemorates Heroes Day and Defence Forces this year, one can only take a pause and ponder on the true meaning of heroism and what the National Acre means following Mugabe’s death.

Over the past decades when the use of social media was yet to become a global phenomenon, debate on who should be declared national hero was largely the forte of the academia and fodder for columnists in privately-owned newspapers. Mugabe had made the Heroes Acre, a final resting place for the 1970s liberation war veterans. That has since changed, social media has now become the public sphere for such discourse.

Names like Border Gezi, Chenjerai Hunzvi, Elliot Manyika among others come to mind. Not much has been said about their role in the bush war that ushered in self-rule and that became a talking point on Mugabe’s hypocrisy as well as his legacy.

Conspicuous by their absence at the national shrine are heroes like Lookout Masuku and Dumiso Dabengwa both Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) ex-combatants. Masuku was one of the post-independence victims of the 1980s disturbances in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces whom Mugabe disdained till death. Dabengwa, on the other hand, choose to be buried at his Ntabazinduna village. The list of unsung former ZIPRA combatants who were not accorded national hero status is long.

The disturbances that have become infamously known as Gukurahundi resulted in the deaths of at least 20,000 people in the two provinces according to researchers. A government which unleashed the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade is yet to make an apology over the atrocities suffice to set up a commission whose works remain far from desirable.

The death of another Zipra ex-combatant Stanley Nleya in June also reignited the debate on how historians have whitewashed narratives on the war to be skewed in favour of Zanla trained ex-fighters who now command influential positions at a national level.

Many only learnt of Nleya extolled liberation virtues when his obituary was penned. Here is a man who trained decorated servicemen like current Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander Phillip Valerio Sibanda. Nleya’s death also gave many an insight into the life of a hero. Reports show that at 72 he was working at a liquor shop owned by his nephew. Unlike many other “heroes” who are still alive Nleya embedded no sense of entitlement. His liberation war credential did not become a source of ill-gotten wealth or a passport to unleash a reign of terror on those whose views differed from him. He was an ordinary man.

The death of former Airforce of Zimbabwe Air Marshall Perrence Shiri brought to the fore how Zimbabwe remains a bruised nation 40 years after Uhuru. Shiri’s role in the liberation struggle is unquestionable. As a teenager, he joined many other then child combatants who played a role in emancipating Zimbabwe from colonial rule. It is his role during what would have been the honeymoon years of Independence which became a talking point when he succumbed to Covid-19, becoming the most prominent personality to pass away due to the respiratory ailment.

As the leader of the North-Korean 5th Brigade which was largely blamed for the 1980s disturbances, declaring him a national did not open up scars for many Gukurahundi victims and their families but it presented an opportunity for authorities to make a public apology. That chance was blown. Zimbabwe remains bruised and when the dust settles and the liberation war heroes are wiped off from the face of the earth, who will become a hero?

What will recognise Zimbabwe's first billionaire Strive Masiyiwa, eye specialist Solomon Guramatunhu, multiple Olympic medalist Kirsty Coventry, young Tanya Muzinda or any other Zimbabwean that has hoisted the country's flag by accelerating in their own chosen disciplines?

Going forward, an independent commission that is not blinkered by political persuasion should take the lead in defining who is a hero. This decision should be guided by posterity.

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