Why the killing of innocent civilians in Zimbabwe in 2018 by the Army is not an isolated event, it is engrained in the politics of the country.
(Featured Image from VOA Zimbabwe)
The song opens up with fast paced lead guitar picking supported by a bass guitar, then in comes the six beats that slow down the pace a little and open up the rhythm. The complex guitar plucking makes a home between the empty spaces of the moderately paced drum as the rhythm and song roars to life. The lead guitar plays a melody, one which will be complemented by the lyrics as the song plays on. The music is reminiscent of the Kanindo rhythms of Kenya and Tanzania as well as the Rhumba beat of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Sungura music maestro Simon Chimbetu’s familiar voice, in Kure Kachana (It is Far), leads the backing vocals and takes the listener in a metaphorical journey to the statehouse. The musician, thought to be a veteran of the 1970 war of liberation himself, reminds the listener that the path to majority rule in Zimbabwe was wrought by war and military prowess. On the surface, the song is a simple reminder - a history lesson if you will – but if you peel back with the current state of affairs as a backdrop, the hook is a warning that this position of power, the presidency, belongs to those that took that metaphorical journey to the state house and that the journey towards it is not easily secured by the ballot. Indeed, on the eve of the presidential elections in 2002, when it appeared Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party might win the elections, the then head of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, General Vitalis Zvinavashe, now late, released a statement which shook Zimbabwe and anyone else interested, but effectively made the election an academic exercise. “We wish to make it very clear to all Zimbabwean citizens that the security organisations will only stand in support of those political leaders that will pursue Zimbabwean values, traditions and beliefs for which thousands of lives were lost in the pursuit of Zimbabwe’s hard won independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interests. To this end, let it be known that the highest office in the land is a straitjacket whose occupant is expected to observe the objectivities of the liberation struggle. We will therefore not accept, let alone support, or support anyone (sic) with a different agenda that threatens the very existence of our sovereignty.”
Kure Kachana was released in 2002, when Robert Mugabe was still in office, when the fast track land reform was still raging, when war veterans and war logic received a daily mention on the local news. It took a war to attain space in the statehouse, and as the state of affairs were highlighting in that moment, it would take the same or something similar to maintain it. By the increasing involvement of the army in the affairs of the ruling party, ZANU-PF stopped being a political force in 2000, when gun wielding, partisan self-proclaimed veterans thought it their job to maintain the party’s electoral hegemony. Chimbetu told us what it took to get to the state house, and although he neglected to mention was what it would take to keep it, one can read a warning when he sings, “idi kusate house kure – indeed the state house is far”.
But this phenomenon of war politics is not unique to Zimbabwe. Kim Dong-Choon writes about how the war politics of the Korean war has continued to affect South Korean politics to date. He writes that “If a state is established through and after war, the logic of war may be embedded in its politics…War politics can be regarded as an extension of war to the political platform, applying the logic of war, an ‘enemy and us’ dichotomy, to competition between parties and confronting a dissident party as an internal enemy”.
1st of August, 2018: it began as just a group of people, purportedly of the MDC Alliance, marching and singing in town celebrating a presidential election win that was yet to be announced by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). The next moment, there were riot police controlling the crowd. A few moments later, it was military tanks and live ammunition raining on unarmed citizens. In the callous nature of social media, bodies of civilians shot in the back began to flood Zimbabwean social media circles. Some self-declared experts and other Zimbabweans would like to say that they did not see this coming. Social media was rife with comments about how this is worse than what we had under Mugabe, how this should have never happened in Zimbabwe. Anywhere else on the African continent perhaps but surely not to us peaceful Zimbabweans. It would be ahistorical to consider this as an incident and not as part of our political DNA as a nation. Furthermore, it is uncritical to trace this particular event to the November coup-not-coup.
I will begin in 2000, when I was cognisant enough to understand the stories my parents told and comprehend the angry words my father would shout back at the eight o’clock news. In 2000, after the constitutional referendum debate, the ZANU-PF led government reverted to its tried and tested method of power gain and retention. While Gukurahundi was about ZANU attaining total political control to effectively create a one party state and the MDC was a different political proposition, whether power is threatened, or there is a need to expand it, the war logic remains. And so in 2000, self-proclaimed war veterans, waving their war credentials earned on that journey to the statehouse, embarked on violent land possessions. Violence ensued, thousands of black farm workers, many of whom were descendants of migrants with no rural home to return to, where displaced. To this day, the land question remains unresolved in Zimbabwe. Around the same time, as the newly formed opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was gaining some traction in different regions across the country, the military was deployed to subdue civilians. Where the military was not present, the newly formed Green Bombers, members of the militaristic National Youth Service created by Border Gezi, would do the job. Men and women were not only threatened, many where beaten up, humiliated, and sexually assaulted. The metaphorical road to the state house was still being paved and maintained by war and violence, not in the historical sense, but in the present time.
Fast forward to 2005 when the police, supported by the national army and the National Youth Service, embarked on Operation Murambatsvina. Men and women in uniform bearing batons and AK 47s demolished the homes and livelihoods of about 700,000 civilians nationwide. What was said at the time was that Mengistu Haile Mariam, the deposed Ethiopian dictator living in Harare, had told Mugabe that these “lumpen elements” who were targeted were a danger to his rule. Political violence perpetrated by the same bodies continued all the way to the 2008 elections. Hundreds of civilians were killed and a lot more were tortured. In some places, mostly rural areas and high density surburbs, the military or members of the National Youth Service would call community meetings where they would torture individuals known or reported to support the opposition party. Zimbabwe was facing another presidential election, and the journey to the state house was just as war wrought as it was prior to independence. It was becoming clearer that as Chimbetu warned, or foretold, “Kustatehouse Kure/ It’s a long way to the statehouse”.
Reminders of the militaristic nature and war sensibilities that form the foundation of ZANU-PF are present even beyond the political violence it imposed on the people. We cannot say we did not see the brutality of the national army coming, when every time one passes by the deserted state house, men in complete military gear secure the parameters. If you have not been a victim of their random exercises of power, then you have certainly heard the stories. From women whose cars broke down at the wrong time, to pedestrians who looked at them sideways and had to perform a physical act of absolution.
November 2017: Zimbabweans flooded the streets in what I hope was a cathartic act, to finally say what they have been meaning to say for the past 38 years knowing that the guns would not be fired. The only guarantee that there would be no bloodshed was the promise that the military would not be brutal. Mnangagwa’s journey to the state house was organised and supported, at least at face value, by the national army. In an act that echoed the words of Chimbetu, “Dare rakaronga kuenda mberi nehondo/ The courts have agreed to proceed with the war”, the army, without checking in with the citizens, carried out a coup that was not a coup as Mnangagwa walked that war wrought journey to the statehouse.
January 2019: A peaceful citizen led stay away/shutdown is challenged by the military entering the private sphere. Reports of soldiers, both in military clothing and in civilian garb, entering citizen’s households to unleash unspeakable violence. There is an internet shutdown, men are beaten and women are sexually assaulted.
Zimbabwe has been in the thick of conflict and violence for far too long. Violence, as perpetrated by security forces, has always been in our DNA as a nation, our first order business, our operational mandate. I may have chosen to begin in 2000, but that has been the face of our politics even before that. One needs only to recall atrocities such as Gukuruhaundi in the early 1980s in Matabeleland and Midlands, and the countless mysterious deaths, disappearances, of numerous individuals. To deny that Zimbabwe’s security forces have always been an extension of the ruling party would require that we be selectively blind. It is unfortunate, that even in 2018, the road to the state house is still one paved with violence and bloodshed, not of self-proclaimed heroes, but of innocent unarmed civilians.
Ian Johnson in questioning how long it takes for history to effect change, he quotes the Belgian sinologist Simon Leys, who in the 1980’s wrote of the experiences of “the French Catholic priest Évariste Régis Huc who traveled widely through China in the 1840s, following the Qing dynasty’s defeat in the First Opium War of 1839–1842. Even though the Qing would not fall until 1911, Huc knew that it was finished. “Yet it took another seventy years for the old empire actually to collapse,” Leys wrote. “When operating on the scale of China, history adopts another rhythm.”
Even though Zanu stopped being a political force in 2000, it was another 17 years before the martial mask was peeled, to reveal Mugabe’s power brokers who no longer wanted a figurehead but wanted chinhu chavo, their thing. Perhaps the rhythm in of history in Zimbabwe is one that progresses even slower, for nothing has changed in a very long time. And for whoever tries to attain a seat in the statehouse, Chimbetu reminds us that, kuState house kure.