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The War on Memory: Destruction of Bhalagwe Memorials analysed

Milan Kundera once said “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”

The post-colonial, socio-political and socio-cultural landscape and trajectory of Zimbabwe, has been punctuated by a plethora of emotive and traumatic State sanctioned egregious gross violations of socio-economic and human rights.

Accordingly, the most significant and highly traumatising episode of egregious state sanctioned violations of human rights that occurred at an industrial scale is the genocidal and ethnocidal terror and repression that was perpetrated against the deinstitutionalized subalterns of the Midlands and Matabeleland Provinces.

Between the years 1982 and 1987 and who happens to be naturally, the socio-political and cultural institutional spine of Joshua Nkomo and his political movement the PF ZAPU. According to conservative estimates around 20 000 innocent, defenseless and harmless precious people or the global commons of the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces were ruthlessly terrorised and butchered by a North Korean trained ethno-nationalist paramilitary crack team which was known as the 5th Brigade.

Accordingly, no other place which aptly captures the pinnacle of the callous genocidal apocalyptic brutality and terror of Gukurahundi other than the place called Bhalagwe which is located in Matabeleland South province of Zimbabwe.

Bhalagwe was quintessentially a detention center which was transformed into a blood soaked terror and killing field. Naturally, Bhalagwe becomes, the epicenter for any decent and genuine historicization and memorialisation of the pain, terror and trauma of the victims of Gukurahundi genocide.

Therefore, this opinion piece has been necessitated by the destruction and pulverization of the three Bhalagwe Gukurahundi memorial plaques over the last two years.

Accordingly, Milan Kundera once said “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”

Therefore I will argue why the memorials are an effective means for symbolic justice for the victims and survivors and that the destruction of the memorials is not just a mere low level case of vandalism, but rather a well concerted effort to structurally erase, invisibilize and deface the victim`s historicities of Gukurahundi genocide.

Performance of Injustice

Prima facie, the State sanctioned atrocities of Gukurahundi satisfies the legal threshold of war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide. Suffice it to say, that this demands both prosecutory and a non-prosecutory Transitional Justice Mechanism that is both trial based and non trial based Transitional Justice mechanisms.

However, since the end of Gukurahundi in 1987, which resulted in signing of peace agreement between the then PF ZAPU and the ZANU PF which led to a modus vivendi between the erstwhile political rivals that birthed an fragile elite pact known  as the Unity Accord the ZANU PF government has demonstrated through its commissions and omissions that it lacks the necessary political will and governmental will to establish Transitional Justice Mechanism for the Gukurahundi victims.

Suffice it to say that, Bhalagwe was the ground zero or the Auschwitz of unprecedented genocidal extrajudicial killings. Thus, it was a killing and burial site and a crime scene that has huge domestic and international consequences to its perpetrators. This, automatically places Bhalagwe at the epicenter for any serious discourse on the production of the memory of both the victims and the survivors of Gukurahundi and as well for posterity.

Therefore, in terms of a non-trial based transitional justice mechanism, there is a concept known as the production of memory. This is where memorial iconographs and architectures are constructed and installed to mark and commemorate incidences of large scale atrocities, violence and genocide.

Consequently, memorials can act and serve as a vital component of Transitional Justice, through provision of Symbolic Justice to the victims and the survivors.

Zimbabweans watch the documentary, "Gukurahundi genocide:36 years later" during its screening in Harare, Wednesday, October 17, 2018. The screening of the documentary on massacres by the military in the 1980s ended in harsh exchanges, reflecting how the killings pose a challenge for a new president who preaches unity but refuses to apologize for his alleged role in one of the countrys deepest wounds.(AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
Zimbabweans watch the documentary, “Gukurahundi genocide:36 years later” during its screening in Harare, Wednesday, October 17, 2018. The screening of the documentary on massacres by the military in the 1980s ended in harsh exchanges, reflecting how the killings pose a challenge for a new president who preaches unity but refuses to apologize for his alleged role in one of the countrys deepest wounds.(AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Therefore efforts by the Ibhetshu LikaZulu pressure group in erecting Gukurahundi Memorials at Bhalagwe, are a very act of championing for bottom up symbolic justice for the victims and survivors of Gukurahundi. As such the memorial becomes an artefact where the victims can view it as a means to an end in their long term pursuit for transformative justice and retributive justice.

Moreover, it has been proved in other post-genocide historical settings, that memorials can act as a vital springboard to inclusive nation building. Through constructing memorials a nation will be recognising its painful and tragic past in an effort to learn from those mistakes such that the future generation won’t repeat those mistakes.

Thus memorials become an educative and informative theatre where remembering the past is essential so as to not repeat its past mistakes and pitfalls again. Thus they can become forums of “never again” preventative education mechanisms for the present generations and the future generations.

Crucially, memorials provide a healing mechanism for both the victims and the survivors, which is essential for an inclusive and tolerant imagined nation state. Thus, as healing sites, memorials can provide an emotional, psychological and spiritual solace and catharsis for the victims and the survivors.

Consequently a historical and emotive site such as Bhalagwe would definitely provide a spiritual and emotional oasis for the victims of Gukurahundi to have a therapeutic healing to their psychological and emotional scars.

The Elephant in the room

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience holds that, like other democratic institutions, memorials should be judged against standards of independence from political caprice, transparency, participation of marginalized populations and civil society, inclusivity and interethnic engagement.

Therefore, democratization of memory production provides the global commons or the wretched of the earth of the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces the forums and the opportunity to have their historical narratives and grievances to be recognized.

However, since 1987, successive ZANU PF governments have shown no genuine and serious inclination and efforts to address the long festering untreated traumatic wound of Gukurahundi genocide. Suffice it to say that, the current ZANU PF government led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa contains Gukurahundi denialists. Who through their commission and omissions continues to deny and try to downplay the genocidal atrocities of gukurahundi.

This explains why the Bhalagwe memorials continue to be desecrated and pulverized each time they are installed. Thus, within the two years period three successive Bhalagwe Gukurahundi memorials have been desecrated and destroyed each time they are installed.

Zanu-PF fighters pictured in 1980. )Photograph: Brian Harris//Rex/Shutterstock)
Zanu-PF fighters pictured in 1980. )Photograph: Brian Harris//Rex/Shutterstock)

The last one which happened on the 4th of January 2022, had a degree of military precision to it. That is it involved the use of explosive materials that pulverize it to pieces. This is very tragic and disheartening that the victims of Gukurahundi even in their mass graves at Bhalagwe continue to suffer from militarized violence.

More worrying and concerning was the fact that the ZANU PF government did not even condemn all the previous acts of criminality and barbarity perpetrated against Bhalagwe memorials. Especially on the last one which involves explosive materials. Any serious and concerned government would have been deeply worried and carried out an extensive investigation in order to find who is using these explosive materials.

Due to the fact that, these explosive materials can be used for other nefarious purposes such as damaging public buildings or for terrorist activities. Also conspicuous by their absence in expressing dissent and condemnation of the destruction and desecration of Bhalagwe memorials is the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission and Matabeleland Collective. This raises serious questions about the integrity and sincerity of these organizations when it comes to addressing the historical and intergenerational injustices of Gukurahundi.

Cambodia and Rwanda provide some of the historical success stories of symbolic justice through construction and production of memorials. For instance in Cambodia they have the infamous Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes and the Choeung Ek Center for Genocide Crimes. These are the places used for memorializing, documenting and capturing the genocidal terror and repression of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge regime that killed millions of Cambodians.

Robert Mugabe, Emmerson Mnangagwa and Perence Shiri the three key figures in the Gukurahundi Genocide
Robert Mugabe, Emmerson Mnangagwa and Perence Shiri the three key figures in the Gukurahundi Genocide

Rwanda is christened as the “land of a thousand memorials” due to the plethora of genocide memorials that continues to mushroom across its geographical landscape. Nonetheless the main Memorial Centre is at Gisozi and the Murambi Technical School Memorial in Butare.

The reason I have included the impeccable historical examples of Cambodia and Rwanda is to demonstrate that, the painful process of production of memory was successful in these countries largely because, the perpetrating genocidal regimes where displaced and toppled by the post genocidal regimes.

There is irrefutable evidence that shows that successive ZANU PF governments have neither the politica will nor the governmental will to provide and institute far reaching transformative justice and retributive justice for the victims of Gukurahundi.

This also explains why the Matabeleland Collective and the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission have not embraced the memorialization initiatives of the Ibhetshu Likazulu.

Therefore, it is safe to say that genuine and far reaching reparative justice, restorative justice, retributive justice and retributive justice for the victims and survivors of Gukurahundi genocide can only be possible under a post ZANU PF Zimbabwe.

Conclusion.

The destruction and the desecration of Bhalagwe Gukurahundi memorials does more harm than good to the ZANU PF government. Thus, it reinforced its image and standing as a Gukurahundi denialist government.

A government that is very insincere and disingenuous when it comes to addressing the festering genocidal wounds and trauma of Gukurahundi.

The ZANU PF government together with the Matabeleland Collective and the National Peace and Reconciliation Commision should rather view and embrace the efforts of Ibhetshu LikaZulu as complementary and essential and unavoidable ingredient in inclusive nation building.

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