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Zimbabweans will this year commemorate Heroes Day in a somber and melancholic mood. The celebrations that graced the streets of Harare when Robert Mugabe was deposed in a military coup, which many Zimbabweans had hoped signified a change of tides, have been thwarted. Not only has it become apparent that the numerous human rights violations of the Mugabe era will continue under the newly elected President and his “new dispensation”, but also that the violations will be more brutal and shall be committed with impunity in front of the world’s gaze. The bloodbath committed by the Presidential Guard following the 30 July Harmonised Election, resulting in the death of six unarmed civilians, as well as the brutal crackdown on opposition supporters, candidates and polling agents that has followed is evidence of the worsening situation, spelling a tolling time for Zimbabweans and a deep regression of fundamental freedoms in the coming five years.
What is even more poignant about the mood surrounding this Heroes’ Day is the paradox between what those responsible for the current events insist they are and who they present themselves to be through their actions. For a very long time, ZANU PF and its governments, have appropriated the “hero” status in Zimbabwe and have posited themselves as the “People’s Liberators” who, as Chris Mutsvangwa recently stated, gave the people this country. Heroism, has been packaged in the sterile political version which recognises only those who:
The selective, subjective and inconsistent application of these criteria has mired the process of acknowledging heroes and heroines in mystery and secrecy, as sometimes these criteria apply conjunctively and simultaneously (e.g. the denial of hero status to Ndabaningi Sithole, who, although he fought in the liberation struggle and was detained for his political thought, did not support Mugabe and hence no space was made available for him), yet in others the rules do not apply cumulatively (e.g. Border Gezi whose liberation war credentials were sketchy yet his zealous service to the Mugabe led government and ingenuity by creating a paramilitary youth wing that subjugated rural populations into voting for ZANU PF secured him a nice spot at the Heroes Acre.) Many have noted before how the national hero status has been politicised leading to what appears to be only former President Robert Mugabe’s friends and family being recognised as heroes, excluding deserving individuals and including the undeserving.
In all these constant conversations, discussions on the marked exclusion of women’s contributions to the liberation struggle have been anecdotal. Aptly defined as the “forgotten heroes” in a 2012 ex-pose, Zimbabwe’s female freedom fighters remain unknown and unrecognised. One account reflects on how the promise of a more just and equal Zimbabwe spurred women and female combatants to participate in the struggle for liberation; yet they have been systematically denied this ideal for which they sacrificed. Those who dominate the narratives of “female heroes” are either understood within the realm of the mystical, which makes them demi-gods and not just women (such as Mbuya Nehanda) or they were related to male political figures hence their recognition comes by association and not of its own merit. The likes of Sally Heyfron Mugabe (Robert Mugabe’s wife) , Johanna “Mama Mafuyane ( Joshua Nkomo’s wife), Sabina Mugabe (Robert Mugabe’s sister), Victoria Chitepo (Herbert Chitepo’s wife) Julia Zvobgo (wife of Edison Zvobgo), Sunny Ntombiyelanga Takawira (wife of Leopold Takawira) and Ruth Chinamano (wife of Josiah Chinamano) are often presented as mere beneficiaries of the “hero status” by association with their male relatives; negating the fact that these women, in their own right, were fierce and brave and that they gave their lives and wellbeing to the struggle, as much as any male hero.
Mostly men’s names dominate what are often presented as the three definitive stages of Zimbabwe’s history; a glorious pre-colonial past in which our ancestors were flourishing economically, politically, socially and scientifically, inventing magnificent infrastructural designs such as the Great Zimbabwe and Khami Ruins; producing expressive art such as the rock paintings at Domboshawa, Matobo Hills and carving beautiful art such as the Zimbabwe bird; a gruesome colonial past in which our ancestors were unjustly robbed of their beautiful land, where the black majority was segregated from the white minority population, their land expropriated and their dignity robbed; and a recent pre and post-colonial past, in which a distinct group of “liberators” died for the country and have used this actual and metaphorical death as the defining source of their right to power and perpetual rule.
Forgotten in these narratives are the inconvenient truths of the brutal and bitter wars of the precolonial Mutapa Empire, the two Shona-Matebele Wars, and the black on black violence of the Second Chimurenga including the summary killings of those considered to be traitors; the appropriation of poor communities’ livestock to feed the entitled soldiers whose role in the “bush” was considered more critical to the liberation of the country than mere resistance within the borders, the rape of women as spoils of war and the forced abortions that female combatants endured at the hands of their male counterparts.
The version of history presented as an intrinsic and intractable single truth negates the fact that Zimbabweans, not ZANU PF, bought their country’s liberation with blood, sweat and years of tortuous detention, seclusion in tsetse fly infested reserves and denial of basic rights. It is Zimbabweans who defended their rights to liberty, dignity and equality.
This version excludes women because it has forced the nation to adopt an understanding of colonialism in its political and economic sense, paying little attention to the social and cultural impact, especially how the marginalisation and deep silencing of women’s voices is a product of the misogyny and male domination that characterised colonial power.
Traditional customs pertaining to women’s behaviour, both in the public and private spaces, are presented as rigid constructs of our past that can neither be changed nor challenged, whose transformation is strongly resisted by both men (who directly benefit from the status quo) and by women (who have become subordinate to the very system that oppresses them). Forgotten is the fact that our ancestors only covered their genitals, women walked around with their breasts in the open and all with their buttocks bare. It must be remembered that the sexualisation of Zimbabwean women’s breasts, thighs and buttocks came with English sensibilities.
Firstly, Zimbabwe’s understanding of history and its conceptualisation of national heroes must change. The objectively verifiable value of an individual’s service and contribution to the nation and its people should be the measure of their heroism, rather than their subjective usefulness to furthering the agenda of a ruling elite. The typical ‘freedom fighter’ who is often rewarded after a struggle i.e. the one who holds the gun, stands at the forefront of the struggle and raises a voice speaking out against the injustices of an era is a hero. The freedom fighter who stays in prison, is tortured and subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment yet still stands firm against the ideals and policies of the regime they oppose is also a hero. The woman who provides shelter, food and water to the one who holds the gun is also a hero.
Secondly, the process of identifying heroes must change. The according of a ‘status’ by the ZANU PF politburo, must be erased and in its place a shared collective memorialisation of the country’s history and how it has shaped the nation’s present must remain. Citizens’ voices must count in determining who is declared a hero or not.
Thirdly, Heroes day must be a day to honour those who dedicate their lives to reclaiming our heritage and positive cultural traits that value community, family, cooperation, peace, respect for human life, equality and human dignity. We need to acknowledge all those who have contributed to creating a just and equal society, and carved out crevices of safety for the minorities who are marginalized. Those whose tireless efforts are aimed at removing all isms that separate male and female, that differentiate based on skin colour, that create pools of privilege and power for a few and disempower and alienate the rest.
Fourthly, Heroes Day must become a day where we accept the fallibility of human beings. The absolutes of “bad” and “good” have nurtured the intolerance that has left the nation more polarised than the colonial strategy of “divide and conquer” ever hoped to achieve.
Lastly, and most importantly, Heroes Day must be a day where women can also vocalise their version of the liberation struggle and articulate what they want this country to become, to give meaning to their forgotten pains and struggles. Children must remember who Comrade Freedom Nyamubaya was as much as they will remember Herbert Chitepo.
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