HomeAnalysisGovt must atone for past with apologies

Govt must atone for past with apologies

THE combination of the works of recorded history, archaeology and forensic science is a sure testimony that the past should never be buried. The good legacies of the past should live on. The evils of the past cannot be buried as long as they are not declared dead in the collective memories of living people. However, should it be possible to declare dead the evils of the past, collective memories should be preserved as valuable information databases for lessons to be taught to the present and future generations.

Willard Chinhara,Writer

Both recorded and undocumented history is a sure testimony that innumerable crimes against humanity were committed in many and varied forms. As society advances economically and technologically, there is need for moral improvement, reconstruction and, above all, atonement for past wrongs, whether done by the dead or the living against the dead or the living. This will make social and political improvement possible. History informs us that there have been two world wars, the First World War or in short WWI (1914-1918) and the Second world war or in Short WWII (1939-1945). The two world wars were concentrated in Europe and brutal atrocities were committed against various sections of the world’s population.

Over several centuries, history has also recorded civil wars, coups d’état, inter-state violent conflict and cauldrons of ethnic conflict particularly in most parts of Africa. In the 1990s there were more than 20 African states that experienced either civil wars or coups and inter-state conflicts.

Most of these conflicts in Africa have been associated with what have become known as “blood diamonds.”

There is need to distinguish between right and wrong, to reward the right things done and to rectify the wrong. The significance of this introductory note will manifest itself in the forthcoming submissions, particularly with respect to the imperative need for apologies.

It is rational to argue that it cannot be overemphasised that there have been well-calculated and pre-meditated violations of fundamental human rights in various parts of the world. It would require volumes of books to examine the historical accounts of atrocities in the world. However, Zimbabwe is no exception to the evils that bedeviled and continue to bedevil some rogue nations. In the 1980s up until the year 1987, the Zimbabwe National Army’s Fifth Brigade was deployed to Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands provinces. The objective of the deployment was to ostensibly deal with former Zipra “dissidents” bent on subverting and subjugating a constitutionally elected government led by Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

The whole operation finally came to a dead end after the signing of a Unity Accord in December 1987 between ZANU-PF and PF-ZAPU, led by Mugabe and the late Joshua Nkomo respectively. The military operation was code-named “Gukurahundi.” An independent investigation by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) and the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) estimates that about 20 000 civilians were massacred in the Gukurahundi operation. The results of the investigation were published in a report titled Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands, 1980-1988.

However, the Zimbabwean government appointed what was to be called the Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry into the Matabeleland disturbances. Details of the Commission’s report were not made public.

In May 2005, Zimbabwe’s Local Government Ministry assisted by the Home Affairs Ministry deployed high-powered and well-equipped municipal personnel and the Zimbabwe Republic Police to destroy what were regarded as “illegal structures.” This operation was code-named “Operation Murambatsvina.” The operation took place towards Zimbabwe’s chilly winter season.

In addition, the operation was also carried out after the 31 March 2005 parliamentary elections and prior to the 26 November 2005 senatorial elections.

In the post-Operation Murambatsvina senatorial elections, over 3 million voters were registered, but slightly above 600 000 (about 20%) of the registered voters cast their ballots. This is an informing scenario that presupposes that Operation Murambatsvina was politically motivated.

It was premeditated and was done systematically but without prior precautionary measures to deal with the effects of the operation. It was a sad period wherein Zimbabweans also witnessed the split of the formidable Movement for Democratic Change opposition party led by the late Morgan Richard Tsvangirai. However, the gravity of Operation Murambatsvina prompted the United Nations (UN) on 25 June 2005, to dispatch to Zimbabwe Tanzanian Anna Tibaijuka, the UN-HABITAT under-secretary-general and executive director, for a fact-finding mission.

The UN fact-finding mission produced a damning report which estimated that about 700 000 people lost their homes in the urban areas of Zimbabwe. Further, the Tibaijuka Report estimated that over 2 million people’s livelihoods were affected in different ways. It is utterly disgusting that the UN remained mum and inactive on the consequences of Operation Murambatsvina as revealed by the contents of the Tibaijuka Report. The UN did not follow up to establish the ultimate consequences of Operation Murambatsvina.

Although five weeks after Operation Murambatsvina the government concealed its shamefacedness by launching a national housing project dubbed Operation Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle (Operation Live Well), the UN has not yet told the world how many victims of Murambatsvina benefited from that project. It is 13 years today since Operation Murambatsvina occurred.

It is interesting to note that, in sharp contrast, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the testing thereof makes the whole world shake. Further, the killing of a few dozen civilians in Syria inspires and provokes a European military coalition attack on such a country. This goes to show the absolute lack of shamefacedness and the double standards of world powers. Judiciously speaking, it can be argued that Operation Murambatsvina was worse than the military-engineered Gukurahundi.

In these circumstances, it is highly rational to submit that the Government of Zimbabwe owes unfeigned apologies to its citizens across the nation. Facing up to the past through political or official apologies can provide the starting point to carve out a roadmap that can lead to reconciliation and ultimately to peace and stability. This is not an easy task as submitted by Desmond Tutu (Archbishop emeritus) in his foreword to a 2003 publication of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA): There is no handy roadmap for reconciliation.

There is no short cut or simple prescription for healing the wounds and divisions of a society in the aftermath of sustained violence. Creating trust and understanding between former enemies is a supremely difficult challenge. It is, however, an essential one to address in the process of building a lasting peace. Examining the painful past, acknowledging it and understanding it and above all, transcending it together, is the best way to guarantee that it does not — and cannot — happen again.

In view of the above Desmond Tutu submissions, since “there is no shortcut or simple prescription” for national healing and reconciliation, it is just imperative to start the process by way of official apologies which simply require a conscience, a mouth and a voice to do so. If our national leaders do not have these human faculties, then they do not qualify to be leaders of the people despite their academic proficiency, business acumen, political prowess and military dynamism. In short, they are just morally bankrupt.

The truth may hurt, but it definitely does not kill; if the truth kills, it matters not because the one it kills leaves enduring landmarks for greater transformation. Apologies are usually feared for their expected legal implications and consequences. However, notwithstanding such fears, it is important to demonstrate that history should never be buried for good reasons. During a conference on populism and national minorities in Brussels in December 2008, Gyorgy Konrad, a Hungarian novelist and essayist, had the following to say in an interview on the culture of guilt and apology: “People did so many bad things to one another and they naively believe that words will heal the wounds. Nevertheless, the demand for apologies is not totally absurd and certainly not new. After the Second World War, when Mongolia wanted to re-establish diplomatic contacts with Hungary, a memorandum was sent to the Hungarian government offering an apology for the Mongolian invasion which took place in the 13th century. I can give you another example. When the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs was planning a visit to Hungary, his ambassador in Budapest told me that he had received a request from the leadership of the Hungarian Lutheran Church for a meeting. The ambassador did not understand why they were so interested in meeting the minister and asked me for an explanation. I told him that I expected that the bishops wanted to thank the Turks for the protection they gave them in the 16th century during the Habsburgs’ Counter Reformation. However unbelievable it may sound to you, my explanation turned out to be right. I do not understand why some countries find it so hard to apologise.”

In view of Konrad’s submissions above, it is clear that on the one hand, we have an apology for a wrong done in the 13th century (about 800 years ago). On the other hand, we have an acknowledgement of courtesy done in the 16th century (about 500 years ago). The question of the day is: were the authorities who apologised for past wrongs, and acknowledged courtesy done in the past, alive in that past period? Truly speaking, what other nations and their citizens are doing shows that history cannot be buried. Every sane person should face up to the past.

It is regrettable to note that there have been universal cases of what has become known as apology fatigue. This situation has prevailed because of the semantic confusion regarding the real meaning of an apology within the context of wrongs done. Many people understand an apology as simply an “I am sorry about that” statement. Indeed, an “I am sorry about that” statement is still an apology. However, the broad concept of an apology depends on the gravity of the wrong or wrongs done.

Thus, the expression of an apology should also vary with the circumstances under which an apology is delivered. According to Ayda Erbal, in her essay titled “Mea Culpas, Negotiations, Apologias:

Revisiting the ‘Apology’ of Turkish Intellectuals” argues that even a rather unsuccessful attempt at apologising can at least be “a step in the right direction for changing the lens of society by informing the public sphere of the necessity for recognising that there is something grave to apologise for” (Reconciliation, Civil Society and the Politics of Memory: Transitional Initiatives in the 20 th and 21 st Century, 2012 Edition). One should take cognisance of the fact that an apology may be quite personal, but that does not mean there is nothing like a political or official apology.

However, generally speaking, the issue of apologies universally lies within the domain of ethics and societal traditions.

Erbal further submits that according to Nicholas Tavuchis (1991), the following criteria constitute the basis for a successful apology:

Explanation of the offence

Expression of shame/guilt/humility/sincerity

Intention not to commit the offence again

Reparations to the offended party

Additionally, Nick Smith (in “I Was Wrong”) goes a step further to distinguish between categorical apologies from non-categorical ones and provides, in summary, the following as sufficient criteria for a categorical apology:
Corroboration of Factual Record

Acceptance of Blame

Possession of Appropriate Standing

Identification of Each Harm

Identification of the Moral Principles Underlying Each Harm

Shared Commitment to Moral Principles Underlying Each Harm

Recognition of Victim as Moral Interlocutor

Categorical Regret

Performance of Apology

Reform and Redress

Intentions for Apologising


In view of the above information, it is safe to argue that issues of linguistic and intentional clarity are of paramount importance for a successful apology. For example, to say that Gukurahundi was “a moment of madness” falls short of a genuine apology. In what ways was Gukurahundi “a moment of madness” and what exactly caused this “madness”? It is also important to clarify what actually happened for such an event to deserve the expression of “a moment of madness.”

The issue of national healing and reconciliation is critically important. Although the Constitution of Zimbabwe recognises this matter by providing for the establishment of a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission ( Sections 251, 252 and 253), there is need for promptness and urgency in matters of execution.

It should be noted that in the post-First World War and Second World War period countries like Japan have issued several apologies for atrocities committed against other nations in the past.

If international relations and diplomacy demand such steps, it is no doubt that the same attitude is critical for national unity. In order to acknowledge mistakes, misdeeds and downright criminal offences, one requires not only humility, but also the moral courage to do so. The legendary dramatist William Shakespeare says that cowards die many times before their actual deaths.

It may not be physical death, but moral death.

Chinhara is a local writer.

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