Bob Mugabe and the phantom of a national hero


By Tafi Mhaka

It happened in slow motion. The nation watched Robert Mugabe become the national hero who somehow defied all manner of common appraisal. The people had heard that Mugabe had remarkable intellectual capacity and uncountable degrees and they could hear that he spoke excellent English in long and magnificent speeches.

President Robert Mugabe

The people could see that Mugabe had a much-refined public demeanor and regularly wore well-tailored suits and ties. Mugabe had it all and he had done it all. He had led his people to the promised land and extended an olive branch to the minority white population. People felt so comforted by his wonderful and inspirational speech on Independence Day, life went on without a care in the world after that historic moment.

You could be like Roger Boka and become the first indigenous bank owner. You could be like Mutumwa Mawere and amass millions of dollars and a huge collection of businesses through a controversial state backed guarantee. You could be like Peter Ndlovu and play for Highlanders and Coventry on the back of your natural skills and willpower. You could have owned Chitanda Bus Company and made a small fortune ferrying commuters to Shamva and Mberengwa. As long you understood who owned the spirit of Zimbabwe, you could do anything you desired.

While people claimed morsels of the Zimbabwean dream – a dark rented room in Entumbane, a low-paid shoe factory job in Gweru, a state-subsidised education in Chishawasha, a small-scale banana plantation in Chimanimani, a vegetable stall at Mbare Msika, a shop keeping job in Hwange – Mugabe claimed the very soul of the nation for himself. No sooner had Independence celebrations quietened down did an exorbitant fleet of ministerial Mercedes Benze arrive on the national scene.

Never mind the socialist mumbo jumbo Zanu-PF spewed and people swallowed unsuspectingly: Mugabe and his cabinet ministers lived like wealthy American and British businessmen and businesswomen did. Their rock star-like lifestyles came complete with prime real estate in the most expensive suburbs in Zimbabwe and luxurious benefits and highly salaried tax free remuneration.

Nonetheless, in the warm and hallucinogenic afterglow of Independence, nobody questioned why Mugabe had appropriated the African dream and replaced it with enormous social and economic inequities. Nobody questioned why the comrades could not live among the people in Budiriro One and Mzilikazi. Nobody questioned why the comrades could not use buses and trains and taxis like Lovemore Majaivana and Thomas Mapfumo used to do.

So, while the white population went back to farming and industry and the freshly liberated masses eased themselves into the newly found reality of full economic participation in the days immediately after independence, the embryonic nation made Mugabe an African demigod: nobody but the Fort Hare trained mentor mattered much in the political and economic scheme of things.

The brightly coloured dashikis and kitenges worn by women and men at Zanu-PF and national celebrations summed up the demise of an all-inclusive national narrative. Mugabe had become the sole custodian of past and future national narratives. You could jump on the bandwagon and approach life the Mugabe way and add colour to the silence of the sacrificial lambs throughout Zimbabwe; or, if you harboured and articulated liberal opinions, you could become an enemy of the state.

The then-Prime Minister had gone about becoming the only hero who the nation revered. People chose to sit back and relax and leave everything in the supposedly safe hands of the nationalist born in Zvimba communal lands. Before long a faithful church of praise singers and historical revisionists led by men like Tony Gara and Webster Shamu and Simon Khaya Moyo had drawn millions of devoted followers.

The only memory of national heroes like Josiah Tongogara and Jason Moyo materialised in road name changes. Nonetheless, beyond the superficial alterations of street names, the revolutionary spirit of social and economic equality for all races and ethnic groups – black, white, coloured and Indian, Shona and Ndebele and English-speaking people – was drowned in a cacophonous display of political fraudulence amid silent and hidden military repression.

Although Mugabe had made an urgent and emotional request for national reconciliation, he manufactured enemies of the state with determined enthusiasm and ruthless efficacy and skilfull regularity. Mugabe began his quest for supreme authority through a crushing crusade against the people of Matabeleland. Yet nobody rang the alarm and demanded accountability for unjust military actions in the southern and western areas of the nation. The Shona people said and did nothing about Gukurahundi and Mugabe won a fresh and improved mandate through parliamentary elections held in 1985.

So while Dumiso Dabengwa and General Lookout Masuku were confined in prison unfairly, under emergency laws, and Gukurahundi raged on, Shona dominated provinces had backed Mugabe emphatically. An agreement reached between Zanu-PF and Zapu-PF hardly doused the flames of heated dismay with Gukurahundi; and an iconic photograph of Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo locked in a frenzied embrace could not conceal the merciless spirit behind the massacres in Matabeleland.

Mugabe had cleansed his sullied soul through a unity deal and amassed substantial brand equity in exchange for the silence of the 5th Brigade guns. His heroic had risen at the expense of thousands of innocent Zimbabwean lives. You cannot help wondering whether casual Cold War loyalties helped Mugabe fulfill his power-based plans. You cannot help thinking the people had built the political monster Mugabe had become. Because right after Gukurahundi had ceased the nation rewarded Mugabe with an executive presidency and blanket approval for him to find fresh foes before campaigning for the next elections swung into action.

Five candidates from the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) were killed and former Gweru Mayor Patrick Kombayi was shot and permanently paralysed by state agents in the run up to elections held in 1990. Predictably, after the violent campaign period, Mugabe won the election by a landslide victory.

Zimbabwe had been bludgeoned into humble submission and marshalled into an extraordinary cult of colossal fear and hero worship. So, an ever-confident Mugabe found a fresh lot of enemies for elections scheduled for 1995. He chose Bishop Abel Muzorewa and Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole. The latter had to fight accusations that he had planned to assassinate Mugabe until the day he died and Mugabe refused to declare him a national hero.

Mugabe had won yet again. But, with corruption and inflation on the rise and the Zimbabwe dollar in free fall, the national economic project had begun to unravel at an unprecedented and nerve-wracking pace. Even the ever-loyal war veterans marched against their much-admired hero in 1997.

The damage had been done though and the whole nation had been contaminated by social and economic regression: pride in ancestral lands and ethnic and regional leanings increased. The regional parliamentary system exploited tribal affiliations and ushered in unequal development, as cabinet ministers characteristically expended inordinate amounts of time on developmental projects focused on their hometowns and that delivered lopsided national growth unfortunately.

Inflation and corruption levels rose rapidly and the Zimbabwe dollar went into free fall. So, Mugabe found a new enemy to focus his wrath on and lay undue blame: commercial farmers. Like Tekere, Bishop Muzorewa and Reverend Sithole had found out before them, the white community discovered that Mugabe remained the conscience of Zimbabwe, and once he suggested the introduction of expedited land reform, the redistribution programme sounded like an honourable and fair-minded want and need for his supporters.

But who wanted the freakish corruption and wanton violence and social and economic instability that accompanied the so-called fast track land reform? So, Morgan Tsvangirai quickly became the latest enemy of the state since he had mobilised millions of voters against a new constitution and a haphazard land reform exercise. Challenging the veteran politician is often considered blasphemous and treasonous; challenging his limited narrative is deemed as being anti-heroic conduct.

But look at the accomplishments of an unlikely female heroine. Look at Kirsty Coventry. Look at the hero exiled from Zanu-PF for a noble cause. Look at Dr Simba Makoni. Look at the hero who was charged with treason and denied national hero status. Look at Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole. Look at the national hero who fled Zimbabwe and went into exile. Look at the great Joshua Nkomo. Look at the unacknowledged heroes who have made Zimbabwe proud but remain anathema to ruling party elites. Look at Strive Masiyiwa and Betty Makoni. Look at the long list of names of questionable national heroes. What are the heroic achievements of Elliot Manyika and Border Gezi?

We make heroes out of smart villains and do not see the heroes residing in our souls. We believe heroes deserve fulfilling lives and we should have lesser lives. We ululate and praise leaders unconditionally and endlessly all so often. We have excellent experience in the meticulous and expensive mass production and maintenance of heroes who have maimed and killed and stolen incalculable wealth and happiness and national goodwill from us.

Look around you: who do you see who wants to become a real national hero? Before the nation is sacrificed at the altar of wild fanaticism, again, think about how low Zimbabwe has sunk under Mugabe. Think about the anti-hero he became the day after April 18, 1980.

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