MYSTERY shrouding the death of Bulawayo provincial war veterans leader Cain Nkala in November 2001 is a case that has refused to go away – not so much because of how he died
but more because of where he was buried.
Questions are beginning to emerge as to whether Nkala deserved the hero status accorded him following the recent acquittal by High Court judge Sandra Mungwira of the members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) who were the prime suspects in the murder case.
On the outskirts of the capital Harare is an opulent burial place for heroes of the 16-year guerilla war for Independence and veteran politicians who died after Zimbabwe attained Independence. All are entombed beneath the splendour of glossy, polished marble graves, buried amid pomp and ceremony.
President Robert Mugabe has seized the chance at each burial to harangue mourners in fiery eulogies about the sacrifices “these gallant fighters who lie here” made to defeat colonialism. Each burial has also given the Zanu PF leader an exceptional opportunity to disparage his political opponents without accepting blame for his ruinous economic policies. Instead, he has apportioned blame for the current malaise to outside factors and forces.
Since 2000 burials have been often characterised by censorious blame of the MDC and its British “sponsors” alongside their Western allies for the economic malaise the nation experiences.
Mugabe has frequently exhorted the audience to view each visit to the Heroes’ Acre as a “period of self introspection”, perhaps mindful of stand-up comedian Will Rogers who said being a hero is about the shortest lived profession on earth. Or Scott-Fitzgerald, the alcoholic superstar playboy who said: “Show me a hero and I will show you tragedy.”
Not all interred at the Heroes’ Acre are linked to political or economic tragedy though. But the glowing tribute during each funeral could be likened to Brutus’ eulogy at the burial of Julius Caesar minus the phrase: “the evil that men do lives after them.”
Among those buried at the shrine is Chenjerai Hunzvi, the militant war veterans leader who gained acclaim for arm-twisting Mugabe to make an unbudgeted $4 billion pay-out to Independence war fighters as gratuities in August 1997. Mugabe’s expedient benevolence triggered a plunge in the value of the Zimbabwe dollar.
Hunzvi, a Polish-trained doctor, made counterfeit, dubious disability assessments leading to a stampede to swindle the War Victims Compensation Fund by prominent politicians and senior government officials.
He proceeded to defraud his comrades-in-arms of their gratuities through various dubious projects and companies ostensibly meant for their benefit.
Hunzvi dragooned his followers to grab commercial farmland from white farmers in a campaign that generated disastrous agro-economic consequences likely to take decades to remedy.
Border Gezi, the brains behind the creation of national youth training centres renowned for churning out vicious party militia, is also buried at the Heroes’ Acre. He left Zimbabwe a legacy of marauding ruling party militias commonly referred to in derogatory terms as Green Bombers from the fatigues they wear and the brutal torture they inflict on Mugabe’s political opponents.
Both bequeathed the nation a culture of political violence and intolerance.
Two weeks ago, the acre hosted Solomon Tawengwa, the first executive mayor of the capital who left behind a legacy of maladministration, a grimy city and an opulent mansion that is emblematic of the ruling elite’s excesses amid commonplace urban decadence.
He became the first hero to have been sacked by his mentors from a plum post for dereliction of duty.
Other heroes lying at the shrine such as the erudite founder member of Zanu, Eddison Zvobgo, bequeathed the nation widely resented constitutional amendments that reposed unbridled powers in the executive president.
The haste with which national hero status was conferred on Tawengwa has brought back into sharp focus a contentious issue of the criterion used by the Soviet-style politburo to determine who merits district, provincial or national status – a subject that many Independence war fighters have often discussed in loud whispers.
More importantly, some former Independence war fighters from Matabeleland have revived the controversial debate accusing the politburo of bias.
Zimbabwe Liberators Platform Initiative (ZLPI) president Max Mkandla says: “The problem is that the ruling party’s politburo is dominated by some regions to a point where if one is not from one of the dominant regions he or she is hardly given deserved status.”
Others, like opposition Zapu leader Paul Siwela, dismiss outright the idea of declaring people heroes. “Everyone in Zimbabwe is a national hero because all people contributed towards the liberation of this country one way or the other,” he says.
Mkandla cites instances when it has taken five to seven days for veteran politicians from Matabeleland, particularly those in the former PF Zapu to be declared heroes. For instance, Swazini Ndlovu was declared a hero after his relatives had given up hope and decided to bury him at the out-of-sorts Greenspan cemetery. It took almost a week for Mark Dube’s status to be decided.
ZLPI is chagrined by the fact that it did not take long after Cain Nkala’s body was discovered buried in a shallow grave outside Bulawayo for him to be declared a hero. “Nkala was conferred national hero status immediately unlike his commander during the war of liberation, Swazini Ndlovu, and was even given national status ahead of Vote Moyo, the late national organising secretary for PF Zapu,” Mkandla points out, adding: “Veteran politicians from Matabeleland are often ignored.”
The public raised eyebrows when the founder president of Zanu, Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, was denied hero status, as was the first ceremonial president, Canaan Sodindo Banana, architect of the Unity Agreement between Zanu PF and PF Zapu.
And Siwela argues that if burials at the Heroes’ Acre were national events, leaders of opposition parties such as the MDC, Zapu and other parties would be invited to participate and lay wreaths.
“People should not mistake Zanu PF events as national because the party is not synonymous with the nation. How many people who are not Zanu PF members are buried at the national shrine?” Siwela questioned, pointing out that there should be input from other interested groups such as the church, civic organisations and opposition parties in coming up with the decision to confer national hero status and not just the ruling party politburo.
“What Zanu PF has managed to do is create a class-conscious society by selecting those among its members for burial at Heroes’ Acre. Besides, there are people who have contributed immensely towards national good, be it in the social or business spheres who deserve hero status but have been ignored simply because they do not belong to the ruling party.”