Saturday, 4 July 2009

Father of Zimbabwe or a Father of Contradictions?

Since his death in 1999, the 3rd of July is a public holiday in Zimbabwe commemorating Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo, a man who is named Father Zimbabwe or Umdala Wethu (Our Father) in recognition of his role in the liberation struggle. As leader of the Black nationalist movement ZAPU, he fought alongside ZANU nationalists led by Robert Mugabe, despite the ethnic tension between the two. However come 1980 when Zimbabwe gained Independence, in 1982 Mugabe ordered his the Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to crush the threat of a coup d'etat from the Ndebele-led ZAPU and this resulted in the killing of 20 000 mainly Ndebele and Kalanga people. This was called the Gukurahundi - a cleansing rain - but in truth, it was ethnic genocide. In an effort to restore peace and end suspicion of ZAPU, Nkomo agreed to a Unity Accord which joined the two parties in 1987. This effectively created a one-party state as in the years to come there was no formidable opposition to ZANU-PF; whatever opposition there was, in the form of ZUM or independents like Margaret Dongo, it was short lived. Nkomo served as Vice President of the country till his death in 1999 from prostate cancer. In life and death he was heralded Father Zimbabwe, for his part in the freedom struggle and as the figure uniting ZANU and ZAPU which in ethnic politics translated to a union between the major tribal groups; Shona, Kalanga and Ndebele people. Now while I've no wish to dispute that part of his legacy, what I am uncomfortable with is that since his death, there's been some selective memory in remembering who Joshua Nkomo was. His title of Father Zimbabwe has now been translated to mean a man who stood up for right, injustice and was a political visionary. Some skewed political opinions have gone so far as to compare him to Nelson Mandela and this is where the buck needs to stop!
At what point is his part in the construction of a totalitarian state forgotten? He was a senior leader part of the same government that used legislation to impose its power on trade unions, press freedom was heavily regulated under the archaic colonial law, POSA and the government crushed political opposition like Edgar Tekere's ZUM (even though the party was doomed to fail) and attempted killings of Patrick Kombayi and Ndabaningi Sithole. Internal silencing was marked by the suspected assassinations (officially said to be a fatal car accidents) of minister Chris Ushewokunze, MPs Joshua Malinga and Sydney Malunga. The suicide of Maurice Nyagumbo after the Willowgate scandal shows how corrupt the state was. The 1990's were marked by government corruption and controversial state programmes like the failed economic policy, ESAP and the land re-distribution exercise. Of the land appropriated under the willing buyer willing seller scheme, a significant proportion of that land was sitting between the hands of government and Nkomo was one of those beneficiares with commercial farms from Gokwe to Beitbridge.
If Nkomo was as much as visionary as he is claimed to be; then why are there all these contradictions and inconsistencies in his actions? Why did the Ndebele people feel he had betrayed them by signing the Unity Accord and for me, as someone resident in this part of the country though of Shona ethnicity, Nkomo had no real power to command development to this region of the country. Bulawayo lagged behind Harare; the building of the National University of Science and Technology and the Zambezi Water Project are sad testaments of that fact; Nkomo knew it but couldn't/wouldn't/didn't for numerous reasons challenge the government's attitude towards these projects. Perhaps the best thing Nkomo will best be remembered for in the last years of his life is his unwavering support for Econet; the mobile phone provider who battled to get an operating licence. His threat to resign from government if Strive Masiyiwa was not awarded the licence is admirable and something I will respect Umdala for. However much more he may have struggled for in private conversations with other powerful government members is unknown to me, and for that too I give respect.
If he is to be remembered as Father Zimbabwe; Umdala Wethu then I feel we need to remember the good and the bad; he is a father of contradictions and inconsistencies. It serves the Zimbabwean nationalist imaginary and propagandist agenda of Mugabe's regime to remember Nkomo as a figure of the nation. It operates on the rationale that if Nkomo's years as Vice President were glorified, then the one party state does not seem so bad and if freedom was achieved through Nkomo then ZANU PF is evidence of that freedom. But we know this to be untrue given the state of Zimbabwe 29 years later since 1980; if we as a nation willingly forget that Nkomo was a significant member of a corrupt and totalitarian regime inasmuch as he was a liberation war hero then we will to amnesia a critical part of our young nation's history. We also show how much we suffer from hero syndrome - that in death we remember the good and not the bad and ugly parts which remind us of the complexity of our past; these parts, in my opinion, should act as caution for the future so we steady ourselves, before over-zealously awarding five-star, iconic status on our leaders.

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