Edgar Tekere, 1937-2011

Jun 8, 2011

Chido Makunike

Thirty years after coming to power, it is not surprising that ZANU-PF is losing an increasing number of its old guard. The death of Edgar Tekere is different from that of many others who played a prominent role in the independence war, for several reasons.

Tekere has impeccable liberation war credentials but dies estranged from ZANU-PF formally, and in particular from its leader Robert Mugabe. However, he maintained good relations with and the admiration of many ordinary members of his former party, and of Zimbabweans in general. Tekere was one of the very few within the post-indepedence ruling structure who early on saw the dangers of the concentration of power in the person of Mugabe that was taking place. He opposed Mugabe's expressed desire for a one-party state by forming his own abortive political party, a particularly brave move at a time Mugabe was beginning to entrench himself as a tinpot god.

Tekere was one of the few who was senior and close enough to the heart of the liberation struggle to turn 'rebel' in these then (and still) unprecedented ways amongst the original 'liberators' without being automatically branded and silenced as a 'sell-out' to the revolution. By questioning its post-independence direction when things begun to go wrong, Tekere became the conscience of the revolution in a way that few of the once-brave 'founding' fathers have had the courage to do.  

When his party failed to do well at elections and disintegrated, Tekere spent many years in political no-man's land. Yet his being an outsider from the ruling clique of which he was an early part meant that he escaped the broad brush of tarnish by association with the decline, corruption and repression that increasingly became an integral part of the Mugabe/ZANU-PF reign. He continued to speak out about issues affecting the country and the ruling party he helped found and was once a leading member of. His essential message, delivered without pulling any punches, was 'Mugabe and ZANU/PF are leading the country astray; this is not the Zimbabwe we fought for and envisioned.' 

This obviously did not endear him to his former close mate, the prickly Mugabe. But many Zimbabweans, including within ZANU-PF, were grateful there was a prominent voice of the caliber of Tekere's to say what many felt but were too frightened to say in the increasingly repressive atmosphere of Zimbabwe from the mid to late 1980s.  

Tekere occasionally confused his admirers by gravitating back towards the ZANU-PF he had noisily parted company with and continued to criticise. There were indications that some of the party hierachy, especially from his home province of Manicaland, saw a critical Tekere inside the party as preferable to one outside it. But then there was the issue of Mugabe's uncompromising, unforgiving nature which would have made it extremely difficult for Tekere to be allowed back in anything other than under humiliating conditions.

But why would Tekere have wanted to rejoin a party he had left, criticised and challenged on principle? Respected as he was by ordinary citizens for the courage of his convictions, Tekere found surviving away from the ruling party feeding trough very hard going. He appeared not to have the survival skills to re-invent himself as anything other than the politician he had always been. He was dogged by ill-health, and also allegedly by alcoholism and frequent brushes with the edges of destitution. Some have speculated that it was the material hardships that sometimes tempted him to consider suffering the indignities of crawling back to rejoin ZANU-PF and its patronage protections.
As the economy entered steep decline, the gulf between the small, comfortable ruling elite and the impoverished majority became wider and more apparent. Because a man of Tekere's liberation-era pedigree made his criticisms of his former colleagues, Mugabe & Co, while sharing the worsening living conditions of the majority of Zimbabweans, those criticisms had that much more bite. In turn, ordinary people respected him that much more for them, recognising the very real material sacrifices Tekere had made by divorcing himself from the political feeding trough.    

If Tekere alive made Mugabe uncomfortable, in death and before burial he presents him with one more major headache.

An official 'national hero' status, complete with fancy burial at a 'special' graveyard, is usually automatic for someone of Tekere's liberation war credentials. The process has become deeply politicised and discredited. It is widely perceived that the main criterion for the current 'national hero' award is long, uncritical membership of the current ruling party more than service to the nation.

Many dubious characters have been declared 'national heroes' while some who were widely considered as illustrious patriots have controversially been overlooked for the tarnished honor. Tekere himself said it had been so discredited he did not wish to be accorded it on his death.

But such was his stature that on his death the issue has inevitably been raised. Some of his supporters have said regardless of feelings he may expressed in anger, he should be accorded the honor, such as it is.   

Whatever decision Mugabe & Co make in this regard will be fraught for them.

If he is overlooked for the accolade of official 'national hero,' there will not only be storms of protest, it will make a complete mockery of what 'hero' means,  more than any past questionable occasion.      

Apart from being a highly-regarded nationalist, Tekere's eastern Zimbabwean province of Manicaland particularly claimed him as one of their own. This is a populous province in which Mugabe and the ruling party have lost much of their early popularity, losing several elections to the MDC party. With fevered talk of an election soon, ZANU-PF can probably definitively write off regaining widespread support from Manicaland if they are seen to have failed to give Tekere his due.

About the only justification for ZANU-PF to deny Tekere the honour would be the charge, cited in other cases before, that he didn't remain 'consistent' to the goals of the liberation struggle. But this will be impossible to defend with any shred of credibility. The view of many Zimbabweans is that by criticising its leaders when they began to lose their way in the lust for holding onto power at any cost, Tekere actually  embodies the finest ideals of the liberation struggle. He could have 'sold out' by keeping quiet in exchange for position and privilege, like so many of his contemporaries have done. 

On the other hand, if he is made an official hero, there will be the inevitable question of why other independent, rebellious former colleagues of Mugabe & Co didn't make the cut. The haphazard, inconsistent nature of the criteria for the designation will be on display for all the world to clearly see.

In the event of either decision, there is the more fundamental question of whether the small group of people within the ruling clique to deliberate on it are even at all qualified to ponder the issue and to judge Tekere's degree of heroism, or whether they have become so estranged from the true meaning of the concept of 'national hero' that they wouldn't recognise it if it hit them in the face.  

In death as in life, Edgar Tekere continues to prick the conscience of a once hopeful nation whose rulers have become lost and sold out the revolution they helped start.

The Zimbabwe Review


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