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Unpacking Zimbabwe's National Hero status


The attainment of Zimbabwe’s independence on 18 April 1980 was a momentous occasion which gave birth to a new state which had been born out of a protracted armed struggle. It was a moment every person had hopes for a good future to come. With the assumption of power, those in government immediately came up with an idea of honouring and commemorating individuals who had displayed their dedication to an independent Zimbabwe either through as freedom fighters, nationalists and or technocrats. This then saw the establishment of a burial ground that became known as the National Heroes Acre in 1981. The 57-acre site is situated on a ridge seven kilometres from Harare, towards Norton.

This initiative was welcomed by many and also stood as an example to other African Countries of what heroism and commemoration were about. However, from its inception, the concept of national heroes and the National Heroes Acre was and is still marred with controversies. The controversies resulted in many questioning the legitimacy of the National Heroes Acre. Firstly, the question of opaque selection criteria, secondly, exclusion of deserving people, thirdly, the inclusion of undeserving heroes, fourthly, the honouring of Gukurahundi Genocide perpetrators and human rights violators and lastly, the emphasis of only liberation war heroes excluding other heroes, for example, philanthropic heroes forms the basis on which the national heroes concept has been illegitimised.

The establishment of monuments to commemorate war is not unique to Zimbabwe the world over countries have erected monuments to commemorate different types of wars and the individuals who participated or perished in them (Magadzike, 2011). The United Kingdom is credited with having initiated the idea of an “empty tomb‟ to remember the absent dead after the First World War. In Africa countries established war memorial and these include South Africa and Namibia which borrowed the concept from Zimbabwe.

What is a Hero?

The definition of a hero especially in the Zimbabwean context is not very clear. Heroes seem to refer to those people who participated in the liberation struggle in their different capacities and the hero status can only be authentic if it has been bestowed by ZANU PF. Heroism in Zimbabwe is ascribed to the dead, it would appear that there are no living heroes. A simple dictionary definition of a hero states that a hero is “a man distinguished by exceptional courage and nobility and strength. This definition would easily suit some of the people that were buried at the National Heroes Acre but would also easily lead to the exhumation of some of the characters buried at the North Korean constructed shrine whose courage and strength was in instituting violence and human rights abuses. Rodney Bungare-Umane noted that: “There are some attributes that are not in sync with heroism. A hero can’t be greedy, selfish, violent and murderous- unless if these were the collective values of our nation.” (Duri, 2015). Profiling of some of the heroes buried at the National Heroes Acre will reveal those characteristics that are not befitting of hero status. Given this scenario, one wonders why they were accorded with the highest honour.

Selection Criteria

According to the National Heroes Act [Chapter 10:16], the designation of heroes is done by the President “where the President 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, he may, by notice in the Gazette, designate such a person a national, provincial or district hero of Zimbabwe” (Guide to the Heroes Acre 2014). The conferment of national hero status in Zimbabwe rests with the president who at times declares in consultation with the ZANU-PF highest decision-making body, the politburo. The independence and objectivity of the heroes selection are compromised in that the politburo is composed of the loyalists of the president and would not recommend anyone against the wishes of the president. Some of the politburo members that were chosen have no appreciation of the history of the country itself and this was brought to light when It took spirited protests from former ZAPU members to get Albert Nxele, one of the pioneer guerrilla fighters, considered for national hero status. Some ZANU members did not even know who he was (The Independent, 12 October 2007). On numerous occasions especially during the Mugabe regime, the president would declare heroes himself without consulting anyone. Mugabe and ZANU PF consistently rejected calls by the opposition especially during the Government of National Unity (2009-2013) for non-partisan selection of national heroes, saying they must find their shrine (Daily News, 22 May 2017).

Deserving Heroes

The general populace in Zimbabwe has raised concern to the government over its failure to give national hero status to those who deserved. In conferring national hero status those who opposed Mugabe were never given the status even if their liberation war credentials were undisputed. Mugabe also deliberately excluded ZAPU/ZIPRA cadres from internment at the national shrine. The exclusion of the late ZIPRA Commander Lookout Masuku in 1986, while individuals of similar ranks in the ZANLA had been given the honour (Josiah Tongogara), indicated that the national heroes project let by Mugabe was insincere and flawed. Masuku’s national hero status was to be posthumously re-classified. It was meant to demean the contribution of ZAPU and ZANLA to the liberation cause.

Mugabe refused to honour Ndabaningi Sithole, the first president of ZANU and prominent nationalist leader whom he dethroned in 1975 using the Mgagago Declaration. After the attainment of independence in 1980, Ndabaningi Sithole went on to form his political party and such a move made him Mugabe's arch enemy. Some of the individuals whom Mugabe would not accord national hero status on account that they had become wayward and opposed his ideology and modus operandi include James Chikerema, Michael Mawema and veteran freedom fighter and trade unionist who was one of the founding members of the opposition movement, Gibson Sibanda.

After the attainment of independence Some heroes especially those who decided not to be politically active were simply forgotten and even when they died their national hero status was also forgotten. The failure to honour individuals such as Sheba Tavarwisa, Henry Hamadziripi, Moel Mukono, Simpson Mutambanengwe amongst others simply left the Zimbabwean population wondering who then are the real heroes of the liberation of Zimbabwe if these were not recognised as such. Some were relegated to liberation war heroes (e.g Thenjiwe Lesabe, Cde Chinx) whereupon they would be buried at the provincial heroes acre or district heroes acre with a flamboyance that comes with national hero burial and poorly attended ceremonies presided over by local leaders. Families of these heroes out of bitterness refused the provincial burials and then chose to bury them at cemeteries of their choice.

Undeserving Heroes

As the years progressed, ZANU-PF obsessed with the idea of holding on to power, the idea of one party, legitimacy crisis and bad governance decided to use the concept of heroes and the national heroes acre as a tool for settling political scores, rewarding loyalists and maintaining its hold on power. Before 2000, the practice of conferring national hero status as a reward or as a way of legitimating ZANUPF’s hold on to power was not apparent. But when the NO vote won in the 2000 referendum, marking the rejection of a government-sponsored constitution, Mugabe aided by his loyalists began unleashing violence to those who opposed him. Consequently, he began rewarding individuals who unleashed violence on the masses, intimidating voters into voting for ZANU PF and violating the human rights of those in the oppositions. The culture of violence that characterised ZANU PF became more apparent and the perpetrators were rewarded as in an unusual explanation that they were defending the sovereignty of the country. This saw individuals such as Cain Nkala, Ephraim Masawi, Border Gezi, Chenjerai Hunzvi and Elliot Manyika being proclaimed national heroes.

Gukurahundists as heroes

The people of Matabeleland have had salt added to their Gukurahundi wounds when the ZANU PF government, which has continuously refused to accept responsibility for the Gukurahundi massacres (1982 and 1987), went on to honour people who actively participated in the gukurahundi genocide by conferring them with national Hero status. The individuals include Elias Kanengoni, Menard Muzariri, Brig General Emilio Munemo amongst others. Ironically these Gukurahundi perpetrators held senior posts in either the defence force or in the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). The peak of the unscrupulous declarations was illustrated when the national honour was given to Elias Kanengoni, the man, alongside Kizito Chivamba, who shot Patrick Kombayi when he was contesting for a parliamentary seat on a ZUM ticket against Simon Muzenda in 1990. Kanengoni was convicted and was sentenced along with his accomplice but they were nicodemously pardoned by Mugabe before they served their seven-year jail sentence. If such people are classified as national heroes then the values of the state and its people are compromised as acts of human rights abuses and violations are regarded as acts of heroism.

Rubbishing the National Heroes Acre

The above-outlined inconsistencies by the Harare regime witnessed on numerous occasion conferred national heroes refusing burial at the national shrine. To date out of the declared 152 national heroes, 16 of them mainly from Matabeleland have refused burial at the National Heroes Acre preferring to be buried in their home area or at private cemeteries. The heroes who have scoffed burial at the National Heroes Acre include senior ZAPU/ZIPRA cadres who were disappointed by the ZANU PF Regime which deliberately failed to recognise their role in the liberation struggle giving all credit to ZANU and ZANLA.

ZANU PF also did not accord the National Hero Status to ZAPU/ZIPRA leaders who openly spoke about their marginalization in government business and also the marginalization of the Matabeleland region in developmental issues. Welshman Mabhena stands as a very good example. His hero status was granted by Mugabe without any recommendation or consultation of the politburo. Welshman Mabhena who had at one time been governor in the Matabeleland Province was fired from that post when despite being a Governor appointed on the ZANU PF ticket he openly castigated the Mugabe government for marginalising Matabeleland. Mugabe had to forcibly bury Cephas Msipa at the national heroes acre even after he expressed his wish that he did not want to be buried there.

Mnangagwa assumed office after the November 2017 Coup, he has been humiliated on numerous occasions when the individuals he declared national heroes declined burial at the shrine. These include the former minister of health Timothy Stamps who indicated that even after his death he did not want to be associated with the violent nature of the national heroes buries at the national shrine. Others that followed suit include Oliver Mtukudzi and veteran freedom fighter Dumiso Dabengwa. Some unconfirmed reports indicate that one of the most recent burial at the acre was a forced one after Absolom Sikhosana’s family, who died a pauper indicated they would rather bury him in Bulawayo. However, they were forced to agree to the burial to save the face of the “crocodile” moniker for President Mnangagwa, from further humiliation by the Matabeleland heroes. The status of the National Heroes Acre which was set to improve was given a final blow when Robert Mugabe, the man who had forced others to be buried there against their wishes was buried in his home area in Zvimba.

Crocodile tears declarations

Unofficial claims are that the ZANU PF government since the time of the liberation struggle has always been notorious for assassinating its people especially those who appear as if they want to usurp power. A number of the national heroes interred at the acre died in mysterious car accidents most of which remain unsolved up to now. Border Gezi, Elliot Manyika died in car accidents and it is believed that they became targets when they advocated for reform of the ZANU-PF political structures that threatened to do away with the old guard and incorporate the young and energetic. They were both honoured not because of their liberation war credentials but for their dedication to the ZANU PF. In 2007 after an exposed coup attempt three senior army officials died in mysterious car accidents and they were all declared and buried at the National Heroes Acre. It would appear that the national hero statuses, in these instances, were conferred to silence the families and citizens who might have questions. One widow Mrs Gunda has always taken the government to task in the newspapers citing that there were too many issues that were not adding up in the account of the accident which claimed the life of her husband, Brigadier general Paul Armstrong Gunda. Could the fate of these late army officials be similar to that of Hebert Chitepo or Josiah Tongogara? Some of the heroes are buried at the national heroes acre out of pity by ZANU PF after it neglected them whilst they were still living. This was the case of the recently buried ZIPRA Commander Stanley Nleya who is believed to have led pitiful life and died at the poorly equipped United Bulawayo Hospitals, whilst fellow commanders are rich and wealthy affording medieval care for themselves and their families outside Zimbabwe.

What did they do for Zimbabwe?

Some of the heroes buried at the national heroes care have no history of their contribution to the liberation struggle. Their obituaries instead of being overwhelmed with information on their contribution to the Zimbabwean cause are full of pictures with the presidents or at conferences, they attended abroad. Mhanda in (Daily News, 14 August 2014,) questioned what role people such as Joseph Luke Culverwell had played to be buried at the National Heroes Acre. The same questions would apply to individuals such as Swithun Mombeshora, Chrish Ushewokunze, Chris Utete, Tichaona Jokonya, Sabina Mugabe, Godfrey Chidyausiku amongst others.

Non-Political Heroes

As the debate for the legitimacy of the national heroes continues there are one constituency of heroes that should be taken into consideration so that inclusivity debate is put to rest, non-political or non-liberation war heroes. Mugabe openly indicated that "Those who lead others be it at workplaces cannot be buried at the heroes acre, we can look for another shrine for them. Those who were buried here were involved in the war to liberate Zimbabwe". As a result, Zimbabwe has, for instance, failed to honour philanthropist Jairos Jiri but the work he did in taking care of the disabled is immeasurable and the impact it had on the community cannot be undermined. It is a positive gesture that Oliver Mtukudzi was given the honour but more can still be done to incorporate non-political heroes. This raises a pertinent question of what will become of the national heroes concept if it continues to be restricted to the liberation war and yet all liberation wars heroes have become of age and are passing on. Will there be no heroes in Zimbabwe? For instance, Solomon Mutsvairo who composed Zimbabwe’s national anthem and Professor Walter Kamba were not given any honour when they passed on. Morgan Tsvangirai could also have been given a heroes honour for challenging the ZANU PF government and for fighting for democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe.


There is a need that the concept of National Heroes be redefined through an act of parliament or policy that stipulates the criteria upon which one can be conferred with the national hero status. The ZANU PF government should not alone determine who is and who is not a national hero. The general populace through adequate representation should have a say. The issues raised around the national heroes concepts have resulted in the National Heroes Acre being labelled as a ZANU PF graveyard rather than a national monument which commemorates true heroism in Zimbabwe. The National Heroes Acre today is being interpreted in a way that gives credit to ZANU more than ZAPU in relation to the execution of the liberation struggle. Liberation Heritage interpretations should be objective an all-encompassing they should not be selective and should not foster the superiority of one group again the other. More importantly, the historical narrative that has been created around the liberation struggle should be re-written, objectively. This can only be achieved if true veterans of the liberation struggle put down the pen to paper and write their raw accounts of the struggle, they should do so without fear of intimidation and harassment. The National Heroes Concept if transparently and objectively implemented will be educational to the people, will help in identity building and will foster nationhood.


Daily News, 2 March 2001

Daily News, 14 August 2014

Daily News, 22 May 2017

The Independent, 12 October 2007

Duri F. P. T., 2015, Synergy and Dissonance between History and Heritage: Problematizing Heroism and the National Heroes’ Acre in the Context of Zimbabwe's Liberation War, in Mawere M. And Mubaya R., Colonial Heritage, Memory and sustainability in Africa: Challenges, Opportunities and Prospects.

Magadzike B., 2011, An investigation of Zimbabwe’s contemporary heritage practices of memorialising war: a case study of the heroes’ acres in Matabeleland South Province , M.A Thesis, University of Cape Town.

Mpofu S, Making heroes, (un)making the nation?: ZANU-PF’s imaginations of the Heroes Acre, heroes and construction of identity in Zimbabwe from 2000-

Tycho van der Hoog, 2019, Monuments of Power: The North Korean Origin of Nationalist Monuments in Namibia and Zimbabwe, African Studies Collection, vol. 74

Guide to the National Heroes Acre, 2014, Ministry of Information and Publicity, Harare, Zimbabwe

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