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Symbolism trumps location: Nkomo statue

By Mthulisi Mathuthu


Mthulisi Mathuthu
Mthulisi Mathuthu

At a Zanu PF rally in 1983, the biggest banner read: “Forward with the Fifth Brigade. We wish you well”. Swarming around a TV camera, Zanu PF supporters capered and danced in victory loops celebrating the news that Joshua Nkomo had skipped the country, fleeing official mayhem.

“Nkomo is an enemy to all the people. Nkomo must die in exile. We don’t want to see him in Zimbabwe anymore; Nkomo must die for ever,” said one supporter, scowling and wagging a finger at the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman. It got worse. “I think he (Nkomo) must be hanged because he is disturbing the country,” said an enthusiastic young vendor, his basket plonked on his head.

The master, Robert Mugabe, had earlier on set the tone with a chilling instruction: “ZAPU and its leader are like a cobra in the house. The only way to deal with a cobra is to strike and destroy its head.” Mugabe and his ilk were on their way, and there was no stopping them. What followed henceforth was ghastly enough to inspire a high amount of literature, only it is not the subject matter of this article.

But how things change! By the time he died in 1999, not only had the Zimbabweans discovered that they actually cherished Nkomo, but that he whom they had treasured earlier was in fact the real cobra in the house. Today, Nkomo who in 1983 could have been burned alive in the capital city, may have his towering statue erected in Central Harare!

There has never been a better opportunity to deal a final blow to Mugabe’s dangerous legacy. Sadly, this may not happen. Witness how some people from Matabeleland, perhaps blinded by anger over Mugabe’s 1980s genocide, are blowing the opportunity to witness Mugabe running the final mile of butchering his own legacy like a mad man hacking his off-spring into pieces in a public square, in line with his legendary capacity for self-destruction?

One of the most disturbing ironies attendant to the struggle against Mugabe has been the amount of energy invested by his enemies in unintentionally propping him up. So many years on, there still seems to be no end to this sorry trend. 

Justice Ben Hlatshwayo’s judgement barring the erection of Joshua Nkomo’s statue in Harare last week may have come as thrilling news to the late national hero’s family, and to the many activists in the western parts of the country.

It will not be surprising to hear how friendships were formed over the piece of news that an injunction barring the erection of the statue had been granted and yet, seriously speaking, this is a disappointing development. It has been argued, and perhaps understandably, that the choice of the venue for the statue is an insult to Nkomo as the Karigamombe building is synonymous with Father Zimbabwe’s political murder by Mugabe.

As offensive as it may be, the erection of the statue there still exposes Mugabe for his backwardness and desperation. Here is a man who comprehends the true value of what he has lost — relevance and blind loyalty. In essence, he is now a cleft whistle with no value. And therefore he must try and relive the past and resuscitate his constituency in Harare by reminding the people of the earlier and crazy days when the cockerel used to fell the bull and yet that will not wash. The intended symbolism long lost value.

Not only have the honours bestowed on him in the early years been recalled but the world has since moved on and the people have seen through his treachery. Consider this: Mugabe was built on deception into a towering African giant and reconciler and was decorated with prestigious awards and honours in a way that paled his true sins into nothing. He, to a considerable degree, rivalled Mandela.

His atrocities in Matabeleland would have never acquired the value they have now thanks to his friends in the West and in Zimbabwe. All the killings of the 1970’s were swept under the carpet and even Julius Nyerere chipped in to help Mugabe finish-off Nkomo by urging Britain to ensure Mugabe’s victory in 1980. “A notable leader,” President Jimmy Carter thought of Mugabe.

And yet, in line with his legendary capacity for self-destruction, Mugabe blew away all this goodwill which had been pouring out at the expense of other people’s reputations. “Let me be Hitler tenfold,” he bellowed recently, lashing out and his earlier handlers as he went about a false land reform revolution.

You will have heard it said that the March 2008 elections produced no winner, or that Morgan Tsvangirai won, and yet the real victor was Nkomo. In 1984, he prophesied that by relying on violence to quell the opposition, Mugabe had started what stood to haunt him forever. It may have been Matabeleland then, warned Nkomo in a letter to Mugabe, but without fail it would one day be in Murewa for what goes around comes around.

Angry with his traditional supporters who dared vote for Tsvangirai in 2008, Mugabe, in spectacular fulfilment of Nkomo’s prophecy, unleashed a wave of terror which our compatriots from the north had never seen but only heard of from other parts of the country.

Contrary to what the activists and the Nkomo family say, it would be progressive to let the statue stand in Harare; and its back must be against the direction of Kutama. The offensive plaque on the statue which deliberately distorts history, in the same manner that the ‘African Heritage’ and ‘People Making History’ books did, can be replaced through negotiation with the future government. Meanwhile, it might turn out that Mugabe’s statue may never stand anywhere in Harare.

The future rulers, who would have come into power through a global anti-Mugabe drive, will find it difficult to erect the statue of a man who has been equated to Hitler by his erstwhile comrades. And yet they will not pull down Father Zimbabwe’s and in that way Nkomo would have triumphed once again. Mugabe would have failed on many fronts, having not just destroyed the good teacher, communicator and possibly a good writer in him but his legacy as well as a supposed statesman and a leader of note.

Instead of being trapped in the old and righteous anger, people like Dumiso Dabengwa must seize the moment and think strategically instead of remaining buried in the past like Mugabe. For Zimbabwe’s sake, let the statue stand for with that, the remnants of Mugabe’s legacy will finally go. Once again Zimbabwe’s real hero will tower above the rest.

To defeat Mugabe, one needs not to deploy myths or blind anger nor delve in conspiracies. One simply needs to let the reasoning flow.  Upon reflection, the only person to have defeated Mugabe so far is Joshua Nkomo. After failing to kill him, Mugabe provoked Nkomo and laboured to turn him into a bitter person — something of a Savimbi so as to justify authentic action against him.

By targeting his largely Ndebele support base in western Zimbabwe, Mugabe hoped Nkomo would view the carnage through a tribal lens. Had Nkomo fallen for the trick, Mugabe would have succeeded in turning his rival into not only a tribal hero but a national wound through which a tribal cancer would have afflicted the Zimbabwean body-politic forever.

Driven by reason, Nkomo insisted that he was more of a political victim than a tribal victim thereby denying Mugabe his intended victory. Mugabe feared Nkomo’s national appeal and harboured some bitter personal animus against him, considering the fact that only in the 1950s and early 60s he had been Nkomo’s secretary handling his boss’s files and jackets. Come 1983, Mugabe seized the opportunity to cow his ex-boss.

According to former Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) Bulawayo boss Kevin Woods’ book ‘In the Shadow of Mugabe’s Gallows’, every effort was made not just to reverse Nkomo’s influence through luring him down the path of violence but to assassinate him.

As Perence Shiri mounted his genocidal campaign in the Matabeleland hinterland under the strategic direction of Constantine Chiwenga from the Magnet House and CABS Building in Bulawayo, Woods and Emerson Mnangagwa were hatching plans to eliminate Nkomo and clear the way for their master Mugabe.

Today, the same person whom Mugabe, Shiri, Mnangagwa and Chiwengwa laboured so hard to obliterate stands a chance to tower over them. The lies and the violence they deployed earlier have come back to haunt them. To resuscitate their lost glory, they are now trying to use Nkomo’s name and yet that will not wash. Nkomo doesn’t need Mugabe to move masses and yet Mugabe needs him now even from his grave.

Just as his image was based on falsification, Mugabe’s legacy is in tatters. The snowman in the Sunshine City has dissolved. So hollow and light is Mugabe that he doesn’t deserve a statue. There won’t be any need to pull anything down Saddam-style come freedom day.

Thanks to his emptiness and, perhaps to a little amount of bad press too, Mugabe now stands like a solitary willow tree in a deserted Siberian Park. Around him are his faithful but equally fearful cohorts — the Chiwengas, Shiris and Charambas of this world who, like confused rats, camp in one hole after another in full awareness that it won’t be long before the freeze strikes one winter morning.

How good and pleasant it would be if when Mugabe finally meets his Waterloo, a towering statue of Father Zimbabwe — the same person Mugabe hopped to cast into a political Siberia — would be standing in the middle of the Sunshine City attracting tourists, journalists, scholars, musicians … everybody!

This article originally published by the New Zimbabwe Blogs.