So many dead political heroes, so few living ones

Oct 16, 2010

The number of politically declared heroes in Zimbabwe is escalating. It has been 30 years since the end of the liberation war that brought independence, so it is to be expected that the older of its participants are retiring from this world. Participation at senior level in that war, along with subsequent good standing in effective ruling party ZANU-PF are the main qualifications for being declared 'national hero' on one's death.

These narrowly partisan criteria, clear for many years but only openly blurted out recently by president Robert Mugabe, have been very controversial. In addition to the criteria, the fact that the decision-making is made exclusively by one political party in the current tripartite coalition government are just some of the reasons 'hero' status has become such a divisive issue in Zimbabwe.

The idea to honor people who have made special sacrifices and contributions to the country is a good one, but it has gone way off track in Zimbabwe. The partisanship of who is a hero is just one problem. There is the issue that service to one's country has been defined in terms only or mainly of what one did in the distant political past, and exclusively or at least disproportionally in the liberation war.

But even within those narrow political criteria, there have not been any clear, publicly-declared guidelines of how the decision is made on how someone is declared a 'national hero,' or any of the lesser levels of official heroism. This has often resulted in derision of the whole process when an individual whose life the public does not widely associate with heroism has been given the accolade on his death.

The sheer number of heroes that are being declared as many senior ZANU-PF and government officials die has removed a lot of the mystique of being declared a hero. One can almost be sure that there will be a national hero declared and buried with much official fanfare every month now. It is no longer unusual to hear ruling party officials voice an opinion about being made a hero on their death, as if it is something one could lobby for. Perhaps it is! (Although there has been the recent twist of Welshman Mabhena, a declared a national hero whose claimed he had said he had expressed not wishing to have anything to do with it, having fallen out with the rulers he had once been among.) 

And why wait for someone's death to declare him or her a hero? This reminds me of the song, 'Give me my flowers while I yet live,' a song in which a person declares, 'I would rather have one tulip right now than a blanket full of roses when I'm dead.' Why 'honor' a person only when s/he is no longer alive to appreciate the appreciation?

There is precedence in officially making people 'heroes' while still alive in Zimbabwe, so this is not a radical suggestion at all. Every town or city has at least a street named after Robert Mugabe, the sitting ruler. Although I am sure there are some who would snipe that the 'hero-worship' exemplified by this has gone to his head and is one reason he refuses to leave the throne regardless of election results.

The point is though, by the way it is done in Zimbabwe the whole process of selecting official heroes (as opposed to those who are heroes regardless of whether a political cabal declares them such) has cheapened the whole meaning of the term 'hero.'     

From Newsday of September 30 2010:

The burial of Ephraim Masawi  turned out to be a Zanu PF show as Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara and officials from their respective parties boycotted the event. The two MDCs had earlier said they would not take part in the burial because they did not recognise the conferment of national hero status on Masawi. They argued they should have been consulted in the process to accord the late former governor of Mashonaland Central hero status.

However, President Robert Mugabe said anybody who did not fight in the war of liberation should not dream of being accorded hero status and that only Zanu PF would decide who is laid to rest at the Heroes’ Acre, in apparent reference to Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist who rose through the ranks from the factory shopfloor.

President Mugabe stressed that the Heroes’ Acre was not for factory workers and people with ambitions were free to build their own national shrine.

“This is a place for people who would have fought for this country, those that brought independence,” he said.
“It’s a place for the freedom fighters and not a place for the holy. A lot of people can help some people just like you saw the priest here helping but that does not mean he becomes a hero and should be buried here.
Only Chimurenga war veterans are the people who are wanted here, not people who can lead workers in factories or in farms. They can have another place to bury those people, not here,” he said. The Heroes’ Acre, he said, was “a Zanu PF shrine and not a shrine for everyone and anyone”.

In an interview at the Heroes’ Acre, Zanu PF spokesperson Rugare Gumbo reiterated President Mugabe’s sentiments and dismissed the MDC’s arguments as “nonsensical,” saying it was clear to everyone that only the Zanu PF politburo had the right to make that decision.

“They (the two MDCs) do not have a history. Why should they be consulted? Who are they to be consulted if they did not participate in the liberation struggle?” said Gumbo. “They were still children when we fought for independence and they were high school boys, so why should they be consulted?” Gumbo asked. “Their absence does not bother us at all. This is a Zanu PF occasion meant for liberation war heroes.”

President Mugabe also dismissed reports that Masawi did not deserve hero status saying he was a freedom fighter who fought for Zimbabwe.

“There are some among us who do not think that Cde Masawi deserved national hero status and perhaps justifiably so because they did not know about the life and sacrifices he gave to the liberation struggle,” he said.

One can almost 'feel' the sneering arrogance in the statements of Mugabe and Gumbo. They reveal not only the reasons for controversy about official 'heroism' in Zimbabwe, but also the wider utter contempt by the ruling/controlling clique for any body of opinion different from theirs, even if it is expressed by parties who represent bigger chunks of the electorate than they do.

It is ironic that the people who insist it is only they who have the right to declare heroes s now display so few qualities of heroism themselves.


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