By David Mupfurutsa
THE other day, while watching the first and permanent choice, I sat transfixed by a song Zvichandibatsirei done by a local award-winning and nimble-footed sungura musician, Hosea Chipanga
In the song, this lyrical genius, using satire, takes issue with people who (mis)use funerals as occasions to shed crocodile tears when previously they watched, from a safe distance, as the deceased lived in squalor and abject poverty. Whatever this musician’s own inspiration and intention, the song, for me, can be interpreted at national and not just family level.
Heroes’ Day on August 8 is almost upon us. The year 2005, being the year of the much-publicised Silver Jubilee, affords the nation an opportunity once again reflect on and revisit the significance, if any, of heroism and the holiday itself.
Twenty-five years of Independence have had a sobering effect on the national psyche, with contradictions continuing to manifest themselves.
Despite all the rhetoric peddled by politicians about Independence and democracy, many events have shown that there is very little shared vision between the leadership on the one hand and their followers on the other.
The electorate, then as now, has become willing and sometimes helpless pawns in this political tug-of-war for political supremacy. With the benefit of hindsight, it now seems that the Patriotic Front was simply just that – a front – in the worst sense of the word, for establishing in 1987 a political hegemony through a one-party state.
Recently, Operation Murambatsvina amply demonstrated that those living in glass houses nestled atop mountains have the habit of throwing stones and other missiles. Is the government then still with the people, as espoused by the late national hero Maurice Nyagumbo?
In 1982, the government, even though infatuated by, and flirting with the then fashionable socialism, went on to establish the National Heroes’ Acre. It has now become a white elephant of monumental proportions where only a select few sons and daughters are interred.
Heroes’ Acre has served to expose all pretensions and propaganda about the country being an egalitarian society. History continues to reinforce the truism that some people are more equal than others.
Heroes’ Acre is a shrine where, even after death, the ruling elite, as if to rub salt in the wounds of the struggling masses, is allowed to exhibit its aloofness and conspicuous consumption. It is therefore increasingly becoming difficult, if not impossible, as is this case, for even the well-meaning, not to speak ill of the dead.
Administration of the shrine has thus far dismally failed to foster national unity. The criteria used to select heroes/heroines have to a large extent been partisan and, not surprisingly, divisive and will thus continue to haunt its architects and disciples.
It is telling that most of those interred at Heroes’ Acre are members or sympathisers of the ruling party. Such partisan selection has led to discord even within the ruling party itself. It is the process, in this instance conferment, that determines the authenticity, or otherwise, of a product – hero status.
Heroes’ Acre has sadly become a party and liberation war museum as opposed to a national monument.
The politburo, as if by divine appointment, continues to exercise the privilege, and not the right, of conferring hero, either national or liberation war, status.
The politburo is a ruling party decision-making body and not a nationally-elected organ. Such a partisan selection process continues to discredit an otherwise noble idea to honour the country’s heroes.
It becomes akin to attempting to sell ice to an Eskimo; a hard-sell indeed! It follows therefore, that the criteria of who qualifies as a national hero should, or manifestly be seen to be, democratic. Selection and conferment of the status should be based on consensus or national sentiment. The primacy of sectional interests has the danger of making the concept at best compromised and at worst, irrelevant.
It is worth reiterating here that the upkeep of the shrine continues to be funded by taxpayers as opposed to party membership subscriptions.
Taxpayers are thus being unfairly forced to pay for the upkeep of the spouses and offspring of heroes who, like the war veterans, are being given pensions and other benefits.
If the selection of heroes is not or, at the very least, seen to be above board and based on consensus, then doesn’t the granting to surviving family members of non-contributory benefits become a form of corruption?
At the moment, matters relating to the shrine are being impartially treated by the ruling party as if they only concern a private company or even a monarch, and not, as should be the case, the whole nation.
As long as the politburo continues to be given unfettered powers to decide who should be interred at the shrine, then it is only logical and fair that the ruling party should finance the shrine and support the beneficiaries from its own coffers.
Allocating public funds and then branding the Heroes’ Acre a national monument, but at the same time, using a partisan selection criteria, is analogous to committing theft by false pretences from the fiscus.
The portfolio committee on public accounts and other patriotic citizens should drive this point home so that the nation does not continue being sold a dummy. There is definitely urgent need for a new mindset in how, as a nation, we conceptualise and decide the criteria of who is a national hero.
The ruling party often vociferously and publicly criticises the opposition for its alleged lack of commitment in observing Heroes’ Day. However, such criticism is cheap politicking because, as already alluded to aready, the Heroes’ Acre, at least at the moment, does not really inspire collective ownership. It is greatly appreciated that not all mortals can be buried at he shrine.
However, if the shrine is to command the respect that it deserves, then it is probably time that it stopped being treated like private property by the ruling party. It is such paternalism within the party that deludes it to unilaterally appropriate national assets (theft by conversion), which has done us more harm than good.
When the opposition politicians boycott Heroes’ Day functions, the act hardly qualifies as lack of gratitude for the sacrifices, some of them ultimate, that were made by some of the country’s sons and daughters.
Boycotts of functions at the shrine should simply be seen as a political statement protesting the criteria presently being (mis)used to confer hero status. In order to end the boycotts and apathy towards such functions, the ruling party needs to extend an olive branch by seeking input from, and promoting participation by, the opposition party in matters such as this one that are of national significance.
The opposition, whatever its perceived shortcomings, cannot simply be wished away.
Unlike campaign rallies, Heroes’ Day functions should not continue being used as occasions for political grandstanding and throwing abuse and invectives at political opponents and enemies, real or imagined.
If a conciliatory approach is adopted, more people from across all sections of society may voluntarily attend these functions. The shepherding or shanghaiing of children who should be on school holiday and youth militia expectantly hoping to secure jobs to the acre will hopefully become consigned to history.
Civil society, especially those involved in the promotion of children’s rights, should be more vocal in criticising such press-ganging of these young and impressionable minds, which, when all is said and done, amounts to child abuse disguised as re-education.
One wonders how many people who will be attending Heroesplush in Kwekwe today understand, let alone appreciate the significance of the day.
For many young people, these galas, apart from allowing a temporary diversion from economic difficulties, seem to provide an opportunity to indulge in anti-social behaviour. Remember media reports about the gala, or whatever you chose to call it, held a few years ago when used condoms were found littering the grounds of Great Zimbabwe.
Selection of heroes by the politburo may have been acceptable when in the late 1980s and early 1990s the country had become a de facto one-party state. This situation is, however, now out of sync with the reality of a multi-party state that the country has become, albeit falteringly.
The country’s legacy cannot be appropriated by a clique within the ruling elite.
Bereft of ideas on how to solve the current economic difficulties, the leadership is now more concerned with harping about the past and the legacy of the country’s liberation struggle.
The liberation struggle credentials are not the only yardstick that should be used to confer hero status. There are many more deserving people from different walks of life — a lot of them unsung heroes, and not necessarily politicians or freedom fighters – who have made and continue to make a difference to the nation and to other people’s lives.
The heroes interred at the shrine, barring race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion and politics, should, in all fairness, cut along the length and breadth of the nation.
Is it not just a marvel to see how the affable former South African president Nelson Mandela and the late inimitable Mother Teresa have respectively, through their good deeds, become international citizen and heroine?
Many times, politicians have the belief, mistaken as it is, that people venerate one’s position and/or human remains when in fact, after death, it is deeds that survive and are indelibly etched in people’s collective memory.
History has the nasty habit of sometimes turning some heroes into villains, and vice-versa.
Even when some unsung heroes are not buried at the shrine, being fondly remembered by many nationals can elevate them to bona fide national heroes, as is the case with Mbuya Nehanda (Charwe) and Sekuru Kaguvi (Gumboreshumba).
These two were uncharitably portrayed as cult leaders steeped in witchcraft by the government of the day, but their legacies have defied time and grown in stature. Heroism is determined by perception and not legislation. Heroism is relative!
The values held yesterday and today will not necessarily be those of the next generation.
The monument, if not properly managed, risks becoming an illegal structure or a gimmick, at least in the eyes and minds of the general populace, especially among future generations who, everything being equal, will be its true shareholders or custodians.
* David Mupfurutsa is a Harare-based writer.