Of hollow milestones and tombstones
By Mthulisi MathuthuBooks, Film, Politics Last updated on: May 8, 2012
BLESSING Miles-Tendi is a strategically situated Zimbabwean academic with access to a range of platforms and forums most that feed into the mainstream agenda setting in global or international politics.
As young as he is, he already teaches history and politics at Oxford University and has respectable outlets for his views with the Guardian newspaper and the Thinker magazine being some of them. He has got access to opinion leaders of note including government officials. Add to that he has a fair command of the language; and his diction is ace.
All these, amongst many, are some of milestones which many of his contemporaries may not achieve anytime soon. No wonder why he has got many listeners in international forums.
Over the years, he has demonstrated that he doesn’t fear treading where angels fear to venture as he regularly opines on human rights issues, thereby routinely generating diatribe and pot-shots from his critics such as Facebook activist Connor Walsh. His work, therefore, deserves both attention and scrutiny.
Naturally, his latest review of the film Robert Mugabe: What Happened?, cannot be an exception. More so because of controversial statements it carries. One is this: ‘We are told at the end of the film that Mugabe’s legacy is one of genocide,’ he writes. ‘And yet there has never been genocide in Zimbabwe. Gukurahundi, Murambatsvina and the March to June 2008 violence all violated human rights, but to label them genocide is to banalise the term into a validation of every kind of victimhood.’
No doubt this statement, just as many in the past have, may have angered many for only as recently as 2010, Genocide Watch, an organisation of global significance which enjoys working links with the UN, recognised the 1980s pogrom as a genocide. Even Mugabe himself considers the episode to have been nothing but sheer ‘madness’.
Two questions are worth asking. First: what constitutes genocide? True, scholarship is deeply divided on this term but almost all definitions retain the systematic of killing of people as a whole or in part for political ends. According to Jack Nusan Porter, ‘genocide is the deliberate destruction, in whole or in part, by a government or its agents, of a racial, sexual, religious, tribal or political minority. It can involve not only mass murder, but also starvation, forced deportation, and political, economic and biological subjugation. Genocide involves three major components: ideology, technology, and bureaucracy/organisation’.
‘Genocide,’ says Kurt Jonassohn, ‘is a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator’.
With these definitions in mind, it can be safely argued that the Matabeleland killings amounted to a genocide; the evidence is indisputable but more on that later.
Naturally, a second question arises: what could be the reason for a researcher of Tendi’s note to deny such an obvious carnage that has become accepted as a genocide? We may never know.
In his 1996 review of Norma Kriger’s Peasant Voices, Robins S, in an article titled ‘Heroes, Heretics and Historians of the Zimbabwean Revolution’ identifies what he terms ‘official silence’ over the atrocities committed during the liberation war and the–so called ‘dissident war’ of the 1980s. Aiding this, he adds, are twin evils: the silence of many academics and media censorship. Elsewhere, Nobel Laurent Doris Lessing has been scathing about this silence which she equates to a crime.
According to Robins, academics like Professor Terrence Ranger and two friends, journalists Phyllis Johnson and the late David Martin, found themselves becoming ‘unwitting accomplices in producing these heroic accounts that become ‘national truths’ that children learn in text books…’
He adds: ‘While individual scholars are beginning to write about post-independence Matabeleland (see Werbner, 1991), official accounts continue to remain focused on the heroic liberation narrative that culminated in ZANU’s triumph. However, traces of the memories of the beatings, torture, death and disappearances of countless Ndebele-speakers are likely to continue to haunt Zimbabwe much like angry and restless amadlozi (ancestors) who have not been properly laid to rest.’
‘Martin and Johnson’s The Struggle for Zimbabwe: the Chimurenga War,’ Robins writes, ‘provided an unambiguously heroic narrative that was incorporated into school text books. Throughout the 1980s, these scholars showed no signs of reflexivity about the problematic ways in which their work was appropriated by Zanu PF. Following independence, when the state turned to violent repression in Matabeleland, they had very little to say about the sweet revolution that had turned so sour’.
It is probable that Tendi may himself be a victim of such textbooks written by these liberal intellectuals. But what still remains baffling is that in his case, Tendi is not merely indifferent or silent but is brazenly and determinedly in denial.
Perhaps the other reason Tendi maybe so determined to deny that there was ever any genocide in Zimbabwe is the hijacking of the Zimbabwean narrative by interested outsiders who are hell-bent on pushing their somewhat racist interpretation of the Zimbabwean tragedy by blaming it on Africans. The sum total of the accusations is that former South African President Thabo Mbeki – who is one of Tendi’s associates and fellow ideologue – has been complicit in the ‘genocide’.
R.W. Johnson, who has a dubious record of having his article pulled down from the London Review of Books website owing to complaints about it having racist undertones, is a leading figure in the drive to commute the Zimbabwean drama of 2000 to this date into a genocide in which South Africa is supposed to be complicit.
Over the years, R.W. Johnson has assembled an interesting body of work and spun a range of ridiculous allegations and woolly justifications. He lists a series of incidents during which South Africa, under Mbeki, either sought to shield or literally shielded Mugabe from expulsion from the Commonwealth and from other forms of punishments. He also chides Mbeki for refusing to act or condemn Mugabe for his crackdown on the civilian population and the political activists. ‘A great deal,’ he wrote in one of his postings on the LRB, ‘depends on whether what is happening in Zimbabwe can be termed ‘genocide’, as many people believe it can, for in that case the UN is obliged to act’.
Neal Hodge replied him: ‘It is not clear to most of us that those whom Mugabe wants to eliminate, if not physically then economically, are other than his political opponents – that’s to say, those who either already have voted against him or might do so in future. By no stretch of my imagination can I see that as constituting genocide, since the unfortunates in question aren’t ‘a national, ethnic, racial or religious group’, as per the Convention’s stipulation’.
Johnson got the message but rather than retreat he sought another way round it. ‘And, with a population continually stressed by food shortages and man-made crises, deaths from hunger and AIDS continued to soar,’ he wrote in his subsequent book ‘South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid, ‘the population was falling so fast that there was increasing talk of genocide; on the crudest calculation there had been at least two million ‘abnormal’ extra deaths since 2000 and the real figure might be much larger. It was not an ethnic or religious genocide (though clearly MDC supporters suffered most), more a general mass culling of the population as a result of deliberate and malign government policy. Mbeki, repeatedly accused of genocide at home as a result of his Aids denialism, accused of shielding a genocidal regime in Sudan and of giving a free pass to another mass murderer, Mengistu, now found himself complicit in yet another genocide.’
‘These crimes against humanity,’ he had written again in another LRB article on Murambatsvina, ‘would not be possible without his (Mbeki) active participation.’
In another instalment he had written: ‘The exact figures are still unclear but it seems likely that the terrible things he (Mugabe) has done to his country have caused over a million deaths’. Interestingly again, Johnson places the deaths caused by Operation Murambatsvina (Drive out Rubbish) at ‘hundred thousand’.
So, judging by international law, Mbeki cannot have been complicit in any genocide because there is no genocide in Zimbabwe and even going by Johnson’s creativity it will be difficult to implicate the former South African president because by his (Johnson) own admission ‘the figures are unclear’.
It is stretching it too far to say Mugabe has, since 2000 or around that period, sought elimination of other people per se; he instead seeks to send shock waves. His primary concern is power – what Michael Auret called ‘control, control, control and control’. He targets only those who threaten his hold on power and not for systematic elimination but for instilling a sense of deep fear. He seeks to control people by making an example of some of their number so that those remaining are left with no option but to submit to him.
In the end it will be capitulation as opposed to cleansing. Mugabe is a bigoted power monger but he has evidently found cleansing too big a task to initiate this time around. Clearly, he fears another Gukurahundi. The claim that he seeks to cleanse is convenient now to those who want to escape blame for their earlier indifference by claiming that he has gotten worse over the years to be an ethnic cleanser all because of the farms. If Mugabe had left the whites and the gays alone, he would still be regarded as something of an African saint by his new accusers.
Mugabe has, between 2000 and today, committed a crime; but what sort of a crime is it? To say that it is genocide is to commit a grave mistake which allows the manipulative people to get away with their complicity in the 1980s genocide and to affix their fitting label on other Africans.
To see that Mugabe’s discomfort with Gukurahundi runs deeper than it does with any other crime, one has got to consider the state’s reaction to the Bulawayo Art Gallery exhibition of 2010 and his public rants after the release of the CCJP report in 1997. Mugabe knows that the Matabeleland episode constitutes an indisputable pogrom while the assault on the MDC and the whites can easily pass for political thuggery.
Asked what was worse between the Matabeleland atrocities and the hounding of MDC activists, Enos Nkala, whom one would expect to downplay Gukurahundi because of the widely held view that he had a hand in it, had no choice: ‘Well it was worse in Matabeleland and the Midlands but it is now widespread.’
On what he considered to be the worst evil ever meted on Zimbabweans by Mugabe? ‘Well, I think apart from Gukurahundi and other things that took place it is the destruction of the economy’. Nkala wishes he could just avoid the Matabeleland reference, but just because the horror was glaringly ghastly for a conscionable person to ignore, he has to sound humane.
Hodge offers a fitting analogy: ‘By the time there was armed intervention in Iraq, the worst of the genocide was long past, which makes the attempt to dress up the US invasion post hoc as a humanitarian act look pretty sick. In the same way, given that genocide must be seen to be genocide right from start and not a label conveniently stuck on a regime later, once patience with it has become exhausted, it would be no good claiming that Mugabe’s behaviour has only gradually become genocidal and that it’s taken time to be recognised as such. His behaviour has surely got worse, but it hasn’t got different ’.
So being a Pan-Africanist and a friend of both Mbeki and Essop Pahad, Tendi will naturally find it difficult to stand aside while his fellow ideologues are falsely accused of a genocide. Tendi takes advantage of people like Johnson’s puerile justifications to further deny that the earlier opprobrious activities amounted to a genocide.
And yet Tendi and Johnson are both sides of the same coin. Both are hell bent on protecting their own selfish interpretations. Both seek to delink the Third Chimurenga, Gukurahundi and Murambatsvina. To ever admit that these are interlinked with the 1980s being the centre-piece will obviously present both of them with problems.
Johnson, who labours so hard to want to tar Mbeki finds it uncomfortable to freely and frequently pontificate on Gukurahundi being a genocide because he will naturally stand accused of silence for he was never as active against the Gukurahundi as he is against the crackdown on the MDC and the whites. And yet, as Nkala says, Gukurahundi was more severe.
Returning to the definition of genocide, what is missing from the textbooks which Robins refers to and which may have shaped Tendi’s view? It is the fact that Gukurahundi was itself a masterfully conceived project with strong intellectual complicity in the Zanu PF core membership.
The first indicator to the fallacy of the so-called ‘dissident war’ was the fact that instead of a conventional army being sent to quell lawlessness, a private crack unit – the Fifth Brigade – taking instructions directly from Mugabe was deployed. Moreover, most of the so-called dissidents were genuinely disgruntled soldiers loyal to the newly independent Zimbabwe but targeted for lynching for no reason other than they were from the wrong section of the army and population.
In 1998, I participated on a research project for a documentary film which was to be shown on SABC Africa. At Sibantubanye Cooperative, just a few kilometres north of Plumtree, we interviewed 13 former dissidents and they all told the similar story. Peter Stiff tells a more or less similar story in his book, Cry Zimbabwe.
The Fifth Brigade comprised mainly young thugs drawn from Mugabe’s liberation war guerrilla army-ZANLA, and they spoke a language not spoken in the region where they were deployed. Not to speak their language was one of the prime reasons a villager would normally be lynched. Their activities were ghastly, ranging from forcing villagers to dig their own graves, mass rape of young women, killing of children, forcing people into their huts before dowsing it with petrol and setting it alight to mounting food embargoes lasting up to three months with the effect of children dying of malnutrition and hunger. The evidence is awash.
In 1983, the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman travelled throughout Matabeleland and filmed the bodies of victims left to rot in the African sun. ‘In some areas,’ he reported in his 1983 Panorama programme, ‘the air is heavy with the stench of death’. Lomax returned in 1985 ahead of the 1985 elections and was shown a fresh mass grave off the Old Cross road junction just outside Nkayi, amongst many others. Today on that grave is a huge tombstone clearly stating that the dead were victims of the Fifth Brigade.
In the 1998 film mentioned earlier, a former Fifth Brigade operative admits openly to occasions when they acted as dissidents in the Matabeleland hinterland forcing villagers to cook for them only for the Fifth Brigade to return during the day accusing the villagers of harbouring dissidents. Anyone who noticed their strategy never lived to tell the tale.
Not only did he admit to this, but he literally took us to the scene where they killed one Sazini Ndlovu before they burnt his body together with those of others in Hakuna Village in Kezi. Just a few miles from there, the walls of the Bhalagwe death camp still stand with chilling inscriptions engraved on some sections. To this date, gold panners still flush out skulls off the disused Antelope Mine shaft just outside Maphisa along the Bulawayo Brunapeg Road.
One afternoon, in another research expedition in Simbumbumbu, Mike Auret, then a researcher at the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, placed a detector on some sandy heap with thorny logs and rags dumped on it. He closed his left eye with his palm and took a gaze with the open one. ‘Come see, the evidence of genocide,’ he said beckoning us. We took turns to view bones of broken corpses buried in a mass grave. The villagers said it openly that the Fifth Brigade had, one Saturday afternoon in 1985, headed villagers together, called out a few names, forced them to dig their grave while the rest sang Zanu PF songs in praise of Mugabe as their tormentors imbibed beer and smoked dagga. Before sundown, and on realising the grave was deep enough to take them all, a drunken Fifth Brigade operative, high on marijuana, leaned against a tree and emptied live ammunition on all the diggers.
Parallel to this pogrom was a massive bigoted social engineering exercise. Occasionally, some members of the Fifth Brigade would return to the city of Bulawayo after their murderous exercise. At Magnet House and CABS building, they would receive large sums of tax payers’ money and be given Land Rovers to drive to the illicit drinking holes in areas like Pelandaba and Magwegwe to carry out surveys on what the popular opinion was about their activities in the rural areas.
With accounting discounted, they totally outbought locals who lived within their means. Undeterred by police raids, the state-funded agents of social engineering would usually be the last to leave the drinking holes cementing the intended fallacy that the local Bulawayo men are skint and could afford to purchase beer.
On the business front, a department was set up at the CIO headquarters in Magnet House to run the murky side of the SEDCO scheme which distributed loans to prospective business people. The department’s main function was to identify good proposals from people from Bulawayo and strike them down and hand them over to CIO-affiliated business people. The net effect was that the impression grew in people’s minds that people from the western part of the country were not business minded and were laggards. This social engineering exercise was repeated over and over again throughout the western part of the country for over five years. The myths it generated last to this day.
There are many effects of this pogrom and sister evils that are still being felt to this day. For example, some of the Fifth Brigade operatives stayed on in the region, married there and thanks to SEDCO established themselves as business people. Their children grew up being told that there was never any genocide and that anybody who ever speaks of it is himself bigoted and divisive.
The offspring of these agents grow on to become consultants for many government departments and be granted opportunities to translate government documents. But just because they were taught to hate minorities, they naturally speak and write broken minority languages. The Zimbabwean national passport is a classic example of the effects of government directed ‘cultural Chernobyl’ blighting the western part of Zimbabwe. In pages 3, 46, 47 and 48, the Ndebele translations show an alarming content for a language. Is it a mistake that a passport introduced in 1980 is still reprinted with so many Ndebele grammatical mistakes? It doesn’t seem so.
I know of one former Fifth Brigade operative who is head of security at some prestigious London University, and who still lives by the teachings from the North Korean-crafted syllabus of bigotry. He, owing to his fragile inner being, will smoke cannabis and drink heavily before laying ambush on all the people from the tribe he was taught to hate. His habit involves cracking jokes which depict his targets as stupid people with a view to causing emotional injury. This is a sorry condition of Freudian proportions. One can go on and on. Add all these and many other things you have heard constitute a genocide.
As has been said earlier, both Tendi and Johnson may not find any comfort in this narrative. Both of them are many miles away from reality as they ignore a corpus of evidence available only at the snapping of the finger. Writing in Ngwabi Bhebhe and the repented Terrence Ranger’s ‘Soldiers in Zimbabwe’s Liberation Volume One’, Dumiso Dabengwa – himself a victim of Mugabe’s scorched earth policy in the western part of the country – tore into obtuse scholarship and silences in Zimbabwe’s historiography.
‘For too long,’ he wrote, ‘historians have failed our people because of their timidity, sectarianism and outright opportunism. Conditions should be created in Zimbabwe wherein a new breed of social scientist… can emerge. This class of scholars should be capable of withstanding threats and intimidation and rise above those racial, ethnic and tribal considerations [and] oppose the suppression of any information . . .
‘A complete history of the struggle for national liberation is a long way from being produced and will only be achieved when the chroniclers of the struggle are no longer afraid to confront the truth head-on and openly, and have rid themselves of biases resulting from our recent political past – a past which saw the brutal killings of innocent people in the name of unity, peace, stability and progress. Unless our scholars can rise above the fear of being isolated and even victimised for telling the truth, we shall continue to be told half-truths, or outright lies which will not help unite our nation… Anything short of a tradition of selfless inquiry and exposure of the truth will certainly lead to a nation of sycophants and robots who do not possess the power of independent thought which we should all cherish . . .’
One hopes Zimbabwe has not lost Tendi to this group of scholars which Dabengwa painfully refers to for if that were to occur, Tendi would be a symbolic victim of the after-effects of Mugabe’s genocide. Like Mugabe, whose capacity for self-destruction is legendary, Tendi would have hollowed his own admirable milestones turning them into tombstones.
Muzezuru 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
Mthulisi you just sound like another extreme of the two extremes. By trying to excuse and justify the attrocities committed by the dissidents you are falling into the same mould as Johnson and Tendi. You are just another side of the same coin as these two.
Anybody talking about the kind of history found in textbooks is being naive. All countries put forward mostly the positive bits about their history. As Churchil frankly said, "History will be kind to me because I am going to write it."
My wife is British of Carribean heritage. In school she never learnt about Briatin's history of slavery or colonialism. All she knows is that Britain helped abolish slavery.
People who inflate the numbers that died during Gukurahundi are themselves doing a great injustice to those who died. Trying to pass off Gukurahundi as some kind of Shonas in general targeting Ndebeles is another dishonest spin which does little to achieve justice for the innocent people who died. The rural teachers and nurses murdered by Gwesela and Gaigusu and their foot soldiers sponsored by apartheid SA are equally victims.
Gukurahundi by its nature does not qualify to be classed as genocide because it wasn't. This revisionist attitude pursued by the likes of Auret does not help either people from Matabeleland or those from Mashonaland. It only pits one against the other. To try and pass off the dissidents as disgruntled war veterans is the highest level of spin I have ever seen. What of the people these 'disgruntled war vets' murdered?
You description of 5 Brigade is also not true. It's pure fabrication. 5 Brigade where just like special forces found in any country's military set up.