Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa recently reignited the country’s tumultuous and bitter colonial history when he made overt statements suggesting that the remains of Cecil John Rhodes must be exhumed from the Matopos National Park [also called Matobo Hills/National Park] and sent to Britain.
In return, he demanded that the remains of Zimbabwe’s ancestral war figures – locked in British museums – must be repatriated to Zimbabwe. These remains were shipped to the United Kingdom (UK) as colonial war trophies, and this loudly echoes the nadir of European imperialism.
Confronting the Cruelties of Colonial History is a Necessity
In 2015, the UK’s Natural History Museum (said to have almost 20,000 human remains) was quoted saying it may have in its [decadent] collection some human remains from Zimbabwe.
President Mnangagwa’s statements prompted apoplectic and emotive responses of all sorts. But regardless of where one stands on either side of the political divide, such colonial conversation is inevitable and must be tackled with the sober-mindedness it deserves.
The callousness of British imperialism not only in Zimbabwe but in Southern Africa and the rest of the continent at large still haunts black Africans, and its legacy must be candidly and objectively confronted. The risk of revisionism and reactionary nationalism must be borne in mind, particularly for present material realities and posterity.
Return Rhodes’ Remains to the UK, Bring Back the Remains of our Ancestors
Emmerson Mnangagwa made the incendiary insinuation about Rhodes’ exhumation when he addressed traditional leaders at the annual Chief’s Conference held in Harare last week. He asserted that the remains of the inexorable British imperialist served no particular purpose to the nation’s interests, further adding that it is imperative for Britain to repatriate the ancestral remains of Zimbabwe’s Chimurenga [1890s liberation struggles] heroes.
Mnangagwa exclaimed to the chiefs, “We still have Rhodes’ remains in Matobo. What do you think about it? If you go to the shrine, you don’t know whether you are talking to Rhodes or our ancestors. His remains must be returned to where he hailed from and we can also have our ancestral remains which are being kept in Europe.”
One would be vindicated for saying that Mnangagwa is presenting a fair swap deal with the country’s former colonial master – his motives, and those of the ruling party [ZANU-PF], are of little significance in such a conversation that demands the input of all citizens.
Reclaiming and Owning Zimbabwe’s Historical Narratives
Zimbabwe successfully created the statue of Mbuya Nehanda in central Harare – a historic feat for the country’s national consciousness in owning its historical narratives (even though this is lost on some sections of Zimbabwe’s public who argue that the state should have used those funds for other immediate, pressing needs, a classic but expected case of collective amnesia, inferiority complexes, and neocolonial hegemony).
Nehanda was a key spirit medium and liberation war iconoclast whose valiant resistance against European encroachment in the 1897-98 resulted in her assassination – she was hanged [alongside Kaguvi, another medium and liberation fighter]. It is believed that her head (among those of several other traditional leaders who opposed British imperialism and colonial oppression) was shipped to the UK as part of colonial war trophies.
The suggestion to exhume Rhodes’ remains transcends its literal immediacy and weight as it exudes overt political symbolism i.e., exhuming the country’s bitter colonial past for a healthier national consciousness.
Rhodes – The Personification of Colonial Evil
Cecil John Rhodes, born in 1853, was a British imperialist, businessman, colonial politician, and founder of the Rhodes Scholarship – the colony that is now present-day Zimbabwe was named Rhodesia after him. Rhodes was an unflinching believer in global dominance of the British Empire and the Anglo-Saxon race.
He viewed black Africans with racially-soaked disdain, calling them “natives” who were to be treated as children with no rights whatsoever – condemned to manual labour for eternity. Rhodes was the embodiment of imperial subjugation, brutality, destruction, and sheer ruthlessness. And he continues to be. Rhodes stole ancestral land from Africans, the rightful owners. That is how many remember him.
Rhodes’ British South Africa Company (BSAC), buoyed by De Beers’ [stolen] mineral wealth, led the brutally violent conquests of South Africa and Zimbabwe. He died in Cape Town in 1902, but before his demise he indicated that he should be buried at the Matobo Hills – a historical sacred site for Bantu peoples.
Locals say that his remains are buried at a spiritual site called “Malindidzimu”, a Kalanga word implying “where the spirits rests”. By choosing this site, some believe Rhodes wanted to defile the place and “dominate” Africans even in death. This justifies the architectural and engineering sophistication used to dig his grave.
The Long-Standing Exhumation Debate, and the #RhodesMustFall Campaign
Long before the rise of mobile telephony and social media – before the #RhodesMustFall campaign (which originated in 2015) – the conversation to exhume Rhodes’ remains dominated television, newspapers, and radio. Such conversation gained momentum in the early 1980s as the new post-colonial Zimbabwean society sought to challenge colonial atrocities and injustices – which were the root cause of all inequalities and poverty troubling the new nation state.
With the #RhodesMustFall campaign clamoring for the toppling of the imperialist’s statues (as it originated at the University of Cape Town through to Oxford recently), the debate to exhume Rhodes’s remains has gained traction again – it is a hotly contested matter where issues of tourism around Matopos National Park unavoidably come into play.
In 2012, the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) blocked the exhumation of Rhodes’ remains after the radical move was advanced by war veterans. NMMZ said that the grave constituted part of the country’s history and heritage and “should not be tampered with” while the war veterans argued that the ancestors were displeased with his grave, thus causing low rainfall in the Matobo area.
When the #RhodesMustFall campaign fired a renewed resistance in 2015 against Rhodes’ legacy, some ZANU-PF members reignited the debate to remove Rhodes’ remains – saying that his grave is a place that his white descendants visit to glorify his “land-grab” exploits. But Robert Mugabe shielded such exhumation from taking place, suggesting that Rhodes was “paying taxes through tourism” as he lies in “that grave”.
Despite this obdurate stance, Mugabe once remarked, “keeping decapitated heads as war trophies, in this day and age, in a national museum, must rank among the highest forms of racist moral decadence, sadism, and human insensitivity.”
Tourist Contradictions, Revisionism, and Reactionary, Populist Nationalism
Although Mnangagwa’s pronounced government policy, avowedly rooted in neoliberalism, aims towards “re-engagement” with Western private capital (repelled from Zimbabwe via Mugabe’s haphazard and populist Fast Track Land Reform Program in the early 2000s), he is openly demanding historical redress suffered from colonial injustices. On the Rhodes exhumation issue, he deviates from Mugabe’s conservative approach. And the public must refuse to make this a populist gimmick. This is a serious matter that goes to the root of Africans’ identity, dignity, self-worth, and collective consciousness.
The argument to exhume Rhodes’ remains is often counteracted by national history/heritage and tourism considerations. The Matobo site where Rhodes is buried lies some 35 km south of Bulawayo. In 2003, Matopos National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage for its resplendent nature and cultural traditions – for its “high concentrations of rock art and the long-standing religious traditions still associated with the landscape”.
Matopos National Park has been inhabited since the Stone Age, according to archaeologists. The caves and the hills at the site are awe-inspiring. Rhodes called the site “World’s View”, an attestation of its glorious nature. Before colonial domination, Matobo was the “headquarters” of Mlimo, the revered spiritual leader of the Ndebele people. Oral tradition says Mlimo used Silolwane Cave as a shrine. Since the 15th century, the hills in Matobo served as the central religious base for different Bantu tribes.
Rituals such as rain dances have long been performed in the hills and some tribes still perform their customs in areas within the national park. Matopos is home to the Njelele Shrine (inside a sacred cave) which holds priceless cultural significance to the locals
Because of this rich yet acrimonious history, Matopos is one of the main tourist attraction centers in Zimbabwe keeping the [exclusionary] tourism industry alive. Foreigners are charged $15 entry/admittance, plus an extra $10 to view the gravesite. Locals are charged about $2 for entry and an extra dollar to see the grave. But where the Covid-19 pandemic is raging on, the viability of the tourism sector as an instrumental part of the boosting the country’s coffers is now thrust in an abyss of uncertainty.
For families that have earned their livelihoods through selling curios and souvenirs to European tourists throughout their existence, exhuming Rhodes’ remains is purely “nonsense”. The argument is that Matobo will be a poor area – locals who have benefitted from such tourist endeavors affirm that people advocating for exhumation are not from the Matopos community.
A critical question would how such tourism has a place in today’s Zimbabwe, where Africans “go to look at a white man’s grave” while the true details of the atrocities he committed are glossed over. Butholezwe Nyathi, a regional director for the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo says that calls for exhumation are understandable and have moral and cultural weight, adding that the site must be used to present a counter-narrative: “to tell the story of the evil nature of colonialism, taking away a people’s cultural fabric”.
Confronting Colonial Injustices for Progressive Consciousness
Previously, there was no political will as regards plans for exhumation. But with these recent statements uttered by Emmerson Mnangagwa, it may change. That exhumation seems reactionary and angry is superficially valid. An objective analysis proves one salient point: the politicians may appear to indulge in cosmetic, reactionary, and populist nationalism. But no one singularly owns how historical narratives are told and shaped. This is a collective history that the public must participate in to reach an organically democratic consensus.
In all this, the conclusive point is that the ancestral remains of liberation war luminaries, which are locked away in European museums, must be returned to Africa. The repatriation of the human remains of Zimbabwe’s First Chimurenga war figures is non-negotiable: their names deserve immortalization and decency.