Flipping through news stories and articles, particularly those written by non-Zimbabweans, the symbolism and metaphors surrounding Zimbabwe’s new president have the potential of playing the same liberation tune while creating a symbol out of one man, and placing Zimbabweans - the real heroes of the story - in the background. Over the last few weeks, Zimbabwe has been in the spotlight. It all began with the military takeover on the 14th of November, and quickly escalated to Robert Mugabe’s long awaited resignation. With the world now watching Zimbabwe intently, it is not surprising that the man who is now Zimbabwe’s new president, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, has been the target of many articles, stories, and analyses. International media houses have taken to calling him ‘the crocodile’, a moniker that has been popularized internationally a lot more than it is used locally.
The nick name Ngwena (Crocodile), was one he earned during the liberation struggle as a member of a group of ZANU militia called the Crocodile Gang. He was, and still is in some circles, known for his cunning political tactics. While Mnangawagwa’s nick name, Ngwena, is historically accurate, its reemergence into the foreground during such a crucial time is disconcerting.
Zimbabwean politics, or rather ZANU PF, has an obsession with the liberation struggle and has edited and rewritten history to continuously sing praises to those that participated. Over the years we have witnessed how this obsession with the past has pushed out younger people from the political scene. It has grown sentiments of entitlement among those they call war veterans. Never mind that during the liberation struggle every single Zimbabwean was affected. From the villagers who were terrorized for hiding guerillas; to workers in industries, in mines, and on farms; and to students – strictly speaking every black Zimbabwean who was alive at that time is a veteran.
However that is not the story that has been told, that is not the history that has been upheld. Zimbabwean post-independence politics picked out personalities around which it chose to center the war narrative. It created heroes and stood them on pedestals made of symbols, metaphors, and tales. For example, I recall when Joice Mujuru was reemerging on the political scene post-independence, the tale of how she shot down a helicopter was recounted. Her nomme de guerre Teurairopa resurfaced. She became more than a political candidate, born out of this liberation struggle symbolism.
With Mnangagwa’s war time moniker finding its way center stage, it is evident that this tradition of creating heroes and symbols out of selective memory still remains. What is more interesting is that his monicker is one that international media has decided to hold onto, more than local Zimbabwean media and Zimbabwean writers are. Herein lies the problem, that once again as with liberation struggles rewritten to elevate certain individuals, the constant use of “the crocodile” and snapping metaphors ignores the agency of Zimbabwean civilians in this transitional period.
Zimbabwe does not want another mythical symbol. The thousands that marched on Saturday the 18th of November wanted a new president. International media constantly referring to Emerson Mnangagwa as a symbol, as “the crocodile”, undermines the consciousness of many Zimbabweans, who are aware of the man’s past and the present conditions under which he became presidents. It constructs a myth which usurps power of the narrative from the civilian Zimbabwean and entrenches it in this singular symbol.
When it comes to symbols during this period, international media are not the only ones to be weary of. “The crocodile” was not the only symbol created in Zimbabwe’s transitional moment. The symbol of the hero, gamba, in the soldier was popularized by Jah Prayzah’s song Kutonga Kwaro. In that moment, soldiers became the proverbial liberators of the nation. The word soldier became synonymous with hero. The creation of yet another symbol ignores the history behind the military institution in Zimbabwe.
Many Zimbabweans in the south that were present in the early 1980s during Gukurahundi probably have different associations with the army. Some Zimbabweans, particularly in the rural areas, who have been terrorized by certain bodies of the armed forces to vote for ZANU PF in previous elections most likely do not associate the army with liberation. I am reminded of my uncle, a teacher in a rural village who was marshalled to a polling station in 2008 and told to say he is unable to read, so as to have a soldier present in the ballot box and ensure he voted for ZANU PF. Were he alive today, had he seen these marches in urban cities, I doubt he would have trusted the military with the term “liberators”.
Symbols play a role in rewriting history and erasing the experiences of certain demographics. Above all, they negate the role played by the people on the ground. The experiences they have had prior to this peak moment, the fear they have lived in, and above all – their agency. While the international media continues to laud Mnangagwa as “the crocodile” and ignore the role civilians had to play; or while some continue to chant hero at every man in camouflage and do not account for the past in which that same institution that created modern heroes created oppressors – we run the risk of telling and following half the story of how Zimbabwe got here today,
While Mnangagwa may have been the brains behind the military takeover leading to Mugabe’s resignation, the ability of Zimbabwean civilians to take the streets peacefully and in large numbers should not be ignored. Similarly, while the military conducted itself in a professional manner during this historic moment, losing ourselves in the symbol and image of the heroic soldier may ignore and negate the traumatic past some have had with the military as an institution. As we all hope and look toward a new Zimbabwe, it is pertinent that we do away with simplistic symbols and myths. It is because of symbols and legends that we ended up with Robert Mugabe. Unless we stop creating and elevating the myths and legends surrounding individuals, we may fall back into the same system we are hoping we eradicated.