'True heroism rests in the hearts and minds of the people not in the soil'
THE death on of Gibson Sibanda, one of the founding leaders of the MDC, has once more brought to the fore the controversial subject of conferring hero status in Zimbabwe.
It wasn’t surprising that President Mugabe rejected the petition to declare him a national hero. What was surprising, however, is that the MDC sent the petition at all and secondly, the collective reaction by the two MDCs of shock and disgust at the rejection. Did they really expect anything positive?
The only probable explanation for petition is that they wanted to goad Mugabe and provoke him into making the decision and thereby demonstrate his continued refusal to accommodate his partners in what should be national processes. Surely, they knew from precedent that there was no chance of Mugabe conferring hero status on a non-Zanu PF elite? Otherwise, if they were serious, they were displaying political naivety.
I must qualify my comment on the matter of hero status by saying that I have the utmost respect for the men and women who dedicated their lives to fight for the liberation of Zimbabwe. Indeed, I have always argued that the future of the country is shaped by that seminal moment in our history similar to how events like the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, etc have been defining moments in the respective countries.
Yet still, it would be too narrow to think that heroes of a nation can only be defined by reference to those epic periods alone or indeed, that they should be confined to politics.
The trouble is that the institution of the national hero in Zimbabwe has essentially been constructed in hierarchical and elitist terms. It is constructed by and for the political elite. Hence the categorisation by the political elites that measures the hero-worthiness of an individual from the highest, namely the national hero status, provincial hero status, district hero status and finally the Us, that is, the Ungraded.
The first being the highest honour is reserved for political elites. The lesser two are for those whom the elites cannot afford to ignore but at the same time do not quite fit into the top tier so their relations are pacified by conferring the deceased with some sort of hero status. The rest, as long as they do not belong to the club are ‘Ungraded’, as if they played no part in the struggle or nation-building.
Discrimination – Politics, Gender and Class
The MDC know well that it is not just a party issue. The institution of the national hero also falls short on other grounds, for example gender and class.
There are only six women buried at the National Heroes Acre and all of them except one were spouses of the male political elites. The other one recently buried there was President’s sister. Yet it is true that thousands of women played major roles in the liberation struggle. Thousands went to the front and fought alongside their male counterparts. Thousands more have played diverse roles in nation-building since independence. How can it be that only six of them (and those six who are connected to male political elites) were deemed worthy of national hero status?
When you glean the matter, it is clear that national hero status has traditionally been constructed as a black, male, political, party-biased elitist project. If you are a woman you have to be connected to the male political elites. If you are white you have to be a male who meets specific criteria with liberation credentials – hence the odd Guy Clutton-Brock at the Acre.
Further, the decision-making process is in the hands of the political elite. The law (National Heroes Act) confers power on the President to make the classification. Traditionally, this decision has been made through Zanu PF structures – with recommendations coming from the province, through to the politburo and then the President. This is yet another example of how the state was traditionally conflated with the party, that is, prior to the formation of the unity government in February 2009, the view had been propagated and cemented into practice that the party was the state and conversely, that the state was the party.
In other words, because Zanu PF had exclusive claim to power and all its processes, whatever it decided could pass on as the decision of the state.
Instrument of Power in Death as in Life
Therefore, essentially it is an instrument of power. The fact that hero-status is still determined in this traditional, a Zanu PF-designated manner, is yet another demonstration that notwithstanding the existence of the unity government, Zanu PF still retains the lion’s share of power and it can do as it wishes (kuita madiro akamba).
By retaining control over the conferring of hero status, and using the political party process, the Zanu PF political elites are demonstrating their muscle over their partners in government. It is also a demonstration of the elite’s power over the individual in life and in death. It says, even in death, we have control over your worth - whether your stock is worth national hero status, provincial/district hero status or none at all. If you do not toe the line, you are disqualified as a hero.
Therefore, if you covet hero status so much, as some probably do, then you must behave. That way, the elites are able to keep you on the leash during your lifetime. They secure compliance and, therefore, control.
That is why the MDC petition over Sibanda’s hero status was surprising in the face of all that seems pretty obvious. Worse still, how and why the MDC leaders are ready to embrace this skewed concept of the national hero is baffling. The erstwhile opposition rose to prominence and popularity on their claim to bring change. Most hoped that this would be change beyond the replacement of one set of politicians by another of the same kind. Yet seeking entrance into this partisan and elitist project seems to suggest otherwise.
You would have thought the MDC might have devised novel ways of honouring citizens, both the living and the deceased. There are many in various fields of endeavour, like Jairos Jiri, who have contributed so much to Zimbabwe and yet have never been considered for national honours. The MDCs themselves have not come up with a plan for this, and yet once one of their own political elites is deceased, the first move is to petition fellow political elites to confer hero status. What then is the difference between the Zanu PF political elites and the MDC political elites, one might ask? Old wine in new bottles, perhaps.
Gibson Sibanda was undoubtedly a brave and decent man, one who commanded respect across various lines. Yet I would imagine that even he would have been appalled by a project that is so elitist and discriminatory.
I sincerely hope that it is not an ambition of the MDC leaders, who have promised so much to so many, to be conferred with hero status upon death. Heroes like Sibanda live long in the hearts and minds of those that he worked with and for. It is shame that, having served so many, his status has had to be determined by one man. He doesn’t deserve that and the MDC should never have put his name through that charade.
For their part, instead of trying to fit into the Zanu PF straitjacket, the MDCs should devise novel ways of honouring citizens for whom the present elitist project does not cater.
Alex T. Magaisa is a lecturer at the Kent Law School, University of Kent. Contact him: email@example.com