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Big Independence Read: Reflections on Zimbabwe's Independence Day

It is one of the great tragedies of our time that thirty seven years after independence, the average Zimbabwean is ambivalent about this landmark moment in the nation’s history.

With millions scrapping the bottom of the barrel to make a living in Zimbabwe and a couple of million or more others having voted with their feet to foreign countries, there is a high degree of disenchantment – a far cry from the glorious days of 1980, when the country won its independence.

Indeed, it is not unusual but sad to read comments by Zimbabweans questioning the relevance of independence. For the older generations who experienced life under the colonial state, the betrayal cuts deep. Many of them made sacrifices of their own during the war of independence. Others trained in the professions and joined the growing middle class at independence. They had great hope and the country was full of promise. But 37 years later, most of them have been pauperised by a predatory, economically incompetent state managed by a cabal of largely selfish and corrupt men whose sense of self-importance makes them believe the entire nation owes them.

It is particularly bad for the older generation, whose dignity has been impaired so badly that they are now burdened by deep feelings of self-doubt. The very fact that people have to compare the postcolonial state to the colonial state is a sad indictment on the leadership that came after independence and is still in power. Many have retired to their graves – tired, hurt, feeling betrayed and utterly humiliated. Those who remain see little prospect for the future. Their entire life savings were wiped out by hyperinflation and the government did nothing to protect them.

However, at least the older generation have some memory of the evils of colonialism and why it had to be fought and defeated. But there is a new generation of young people born after independence – the so-called Born Frees – who have no direct experience of the war of independence and the sacrifices that were made to achieve it. Of the evils of colonialism, they only read in the books. Yet you can't blame them. For when they do comparisons between their own existence and what they read in the books, they struggle to tell the difference. They look at it and say the present leaders are just as bad, if not worse, than the colonial oppressors.

Yes, they are repulsed by the crass racist system that kept citizens apart on racial grounds, marginalised the black citizens and limited their opportunities in life. They are appalled by the violence of the colonial state and brutal suppression of citizens. But they look at their own experiences and see much that has not changed. In place of the white supremacists of the colonial system, there is a cabal that uses the state to pursue self-interest and don't care about the rest. The state is still violent and repressive. The citizen under the colonial state and the post-colonial state is still marginalised and treated like cannon fodder. For the citizens, the state has hardly changed – there have been more continuities than changes between the colonial and the post-colonial state.

Many Zimbabweans have, in recent years, learnt the hard way, that their euphoria and sense of hope in the 1980s was misplaced. It was misplaced because it did not take long after independence before the new state unleashed a reign of terror in Matebeleland, during Gukurahundi. Estimates put the number of civilians who were killed around 20,000. Some suggest more were killed. That dark chapter which President Mugabe has only described as a “moment of madness” remains an open wound on the national conscience. Understandably, for many people who are victims or survivors of Gukurahundi the idea of “independence” has never meant much from the early years and it still doesn’t.

Still, in the early years, Zimbabwe was touted as a nation that had promise. This was part of the problem. It gave us a sense of exceptionalism which was grossly misplaced. We thought we were special. President Nyerere, one of the regional giants who had supported the liberation struggle had told the then Prime Minister Mugabe in 1980 that he had inherited a “jewel” and that he should look after it. We had many people from around the world coming to Zimbabwe. South Africans who were still fighting for their own freedom found refuge in our neighbourhoods. Students from Botswana came to study at colleges in Bulawayo. Mozambicans came to work on our farms. Even peasants employed them as herd-boys in the rural areas. Zambians and Malawians came to shop in Harare. They told us we had a great country. These accolades gave us a sense of exceptionalism. We actually laughed at the neighbours as their currencies and economies plummeted.

Unfortunately, we also believed that myth of exceptionalism and looked down upon our neighbours, who had already been pauperised by their leaders. We did not draw sufficient lessons from their experiences. Instead, we thought we were highly educated and different – after all the indicators stated clearly that we were making progress. 37 years down the line, our neighbours have not only caught up but they have surpassed us. Zambia, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana and Tanzania have all made steady progress. After carrying the burden of long rule by one person, most have embraced multi-party democracy and their institutions accept that change of government is democratic and legitimate. This is a basic lesson for any democracy, but in respect of which Zimbabwe has failed completely.

The truth is, we should never have believed that we were any different from our fellow Africans across the continent and that sooner or later, if we were not careful, we would go down the same path they had taken before. The unfortunate thing is that we did not only take the same path, but we went even further with even more disastrous consequences. Now you drive on the roads of Harare or any other city and they are worse than the roads we were laughing it in other African countries in the 1980s. The irony is they have gotten better while we have got worse. We have even managed to set the record as the first mega hyper-inflation of the 21st century.

The failure of the post-colonial state is indefensible. However, Zimbabwe also demonstrates the challenges that post-colonial states have had to deal with in the aftermath of independence. These states, like Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia have had to strike a balance between protecting the security and confidence of entrenched interests that owe their position to the colonial system and meeting the demands of a large number of formerly marginalised citizens for whom independence is supposed to unlock equal opportunities. It matters that the division between these entrenched interests on one hand and demands on the other hand, is based along racial lines and sometimes class.

After years of trying to perform the balancing act, Zimbabwe took a radical approach after 2000 in relation to the Land Question, which produced a complete revolution in that sector. The new farmers on these former commercial farms undoubtedly see the land they occupy as an important gain which they would not have had without independence. Critics might challenge the process on grounds of use and productivity levels, but this constituency of new land holders is clearly pleased with the returns of independence. This is a point that is often dismissed or taken lightly by critics of ZANU PF. They underestimate what the land means to the people who are on it and that the land revolution fortified their relationship with Mugabe and his party.

However, Mugabe and ZANU PF also underestimate their own gross shortcomings and how much people have become disillusioned by their lengthy rule. They take the ordinary people for granted and behave as if they are owed something by them and that it is their divine right to rule. They are unwilling and unable to embrace new thinking, new ideas and new people. They are unable to appreciate that people can differ politically but they can still perform important roles for the nation. The system they have created is based on patronage and corruption and produces gross inefficiencies. There is a vast generation of talented young people who remain unemployed or under-employed.

If they cared or showed that they cared, perhaps people would understand. But they shun Zimbabwe’s education system and health facilities to go to foreign countries. They engage in acts of conspicuous consumption, flaunting ill-gotten wealth in front of the suffering people. It is this cocktail of incompetence, corruption, greed, and lack of compassion that has alienated the leaders who fought for independence. In the process, it has led large numbers of people to also begin to question the very idea of independence.

I’m part of a generation born just a few years before the end of the war. The memory I have is at best vague. Independence came when I was still very small. I do recall the big independence parties held in the communities in those early years. There was a great deal of euphoria. Most rural communities had suffered during the war, from both sides, and the end of the war was a relief. Even though we were small boys, I remember politicians chanting slogans, the youth brigades marching and speakers making many promises. The crowds cheered in response, believing the future was brighter than the past.

I have seen the country’s rise and fall right before my eyes. I’m part of a generation that enjoyed the early fruits of independence. There was much symbolism in 1985, when I moved to a new school in the more privileged sections of Harare, which like many of its type catered largely for the white population but had since opened its doors to all races, thanks to independence. It was like being transported into a different world altogether. I also witnessed black families moving into the leafy neighbourhood in those early years – that transition to formerly whites’ only neighbourhoods was regarded as a mark of “progress”.

As a student at the University of Zimbabwe in the 1990s, I witnessed first-hand the vicious nature of the state. I once spent a weekend in the cells at Harare Central Police Station after our group of college students was nabbed on our way from a demonstration in the city centre. It was quite a shocking experience but the camaraderie in the cells is something I will never forget. That was the time when I lost my blissful innocence regarding the true nature of the state. I made friends with students from the Midlands and Matabeleland and the chilling accounts they told me about Gukurahundi left an indelible mark on my mind. Over the years, I have seen the country fall deeper and deeper into an abyss.

I’m as disheartened as any Zimbabwean who believes we are capable of doing better and have been let down badly by the leadership. But, as I often say on this day, my respect for independence never fails. To think otherwise would be to disrespect the men and women who believed they were doing the right thing but never returned home. I’m thoroughly disappointed by the leadership that has betrayed their dream. Sometimes I do wonder, if they were to return and see what became of the country they fought and died for, what would they say? If they saw their own families that they left behind, what would they say? I don’t know if their surviving comrades ever think of them and their families. They now live in plush multi-roomed homes, they enjoy fancy lifestyles and luxurious vacations abroad, far away from the remains of their comrades and their families. The note below is a tribute to these fallen warriors.


A brief note on Simon Chimbetu’s music and the fallen warriors

Friends and family know that Simon Chimbetu was my favourite musician. Well, he still is because his music lives. I fell in love with his music from a very tender age, in the 1980s. Chimbetu’s music carries a wealth of wisdom and consciousness about Zimbabwe’s liberation and politics. Music as a source of the political narrative, interpretation and analysis does not often get the attention it deserves in our part of the world. I often say, if you want to understand the essence of liberation and the undercurrents in society in the 1980s and 1990s you need to listen to the music of artistes like Chimbetu, Thomas Mapfumo, Lovemore Majaivana and others of that generation. They were politically conscious and in their different ways carried the voices of the ordinary people. One day I shall commit more work to it.

If the key stakeholders around the Land Question had listened to Chimbetu’s music in the 1980s and 1990s, they would have acted more quickly and avoided the chaos that eventually happened after 2000. For well before then, Chimbetu had already made a call in his song “Zuva raenda”, in which the narrator laments that the older brother is taking too long to share the meat. Sharing the meat was of course a metaphor for the land. One day, I shall do a BSR on the music of The Master of Song, as he was called, but today I just want to leave 3 of my favourite songs that remind us of the great sacrifices made by those who fought for independence but never made it back. I will do a rough translation for the benefit of those who do not understand Shona:

Hatikanganwe (We shall not forget)

Kwaienda vakashinga moyo chete (It was only the brave-hearted who went)

Kwaikwire makomo avo vakashinga moyo chete (It was only the brave-hearted who climbed the mountains)

Kwaiyambuka avo vakashinga moyo chete (It was only the brave-hearted who crossed the mighty rivers)

Musamukanganwe Jojo, Mikairi naMukoma Tanyanyiwa (Please do not forget Jojo, Mikairi and Cde Tanyanyiwa)

Vakatorwa moyo nehondo (They were drawn to the war)

This is a song that pays tribute to the men and women who fought for independence. As the lyrics indicate, Chimbetu extols their courage and bravery and alludes to the challenges they faced along the way – they climbed steep mountains, crossed dangerous rivers and overcame many odds in the struggle.

Ndarangarira Gamba (Remembering the war hero)

Ndarangirira musi watisiya gamba (I remember the day my hero died)

Mwana wenyu amai, amire panguva yakaoma (Your son, mother, was in a very difficult moment)

Handikanganwe kwete (I cannot forget the scene)

Akasheedzera ndokusheedzera (He called out and spoke to me)

Chionaika comrade, ini ndava neropa pachipfuva, (Look now, my Comrade, I have a terminal wound, blood in my lungs)

Zvino topesana muupenyu, shinga Comrade (Now we are going to go our separate ways, I’m going to die, but remain strong Comrade)

Akasheedzera ndokusheedzera (He called out and spoke to me)

Katanurai zvikasha zvose, (Now take my arms and ammunition)

Muyende mberi nehondo, (And go ahead with the war)

Fambai makashinga Comrade, muchiti ZANU ZANU (Go ahead with the same courage, Comrade, in the name of the party – ZANU)

For me, this is one of the most touching songs of the war. It was done in the 1980s when Simon Chimbetu and his brother Naison were still a duo – called the Marxist Brothers. In this song, it seems a former combatant is narrating a war scene to the mother of a fellow comrade who died in battle. He tells the mother of the courage and inspiration demonstrated by her son at the time of his death. He tells her that it was an unforgettable scene, as her son told him that he knew he was dying but that even through he was dying he had to remain strong and continue with the war. He tells her that he asked him to remove and take his weapons, so that he and others could continue with the war, in the name of their party ZANU, under whose army ZANLA, they were fighting. It is a powerful story of courage and heroism which the Chimbetu brothers painted so vividly with the emotional lyrics – a powerful reminder of the sacrifices that these young men made. But it also reminds us why some people will forever be attached to their party ZANU, forged from these bonds, a fact that most often underestimate.

Pane Asipo (One of us is missing)

Gungano ramaita iri, pane vamwe vasipo (This gathering you have convened, some of us are missing)

Mabiko ataita aya, pane vamwe vasipo (This party we are having, some of us are missing)

Kuguta kwataita uku, pane vamwe vasina (Our bellies are full, but some are hungry)

Tatadza kukanganwa isu, kukanganwa takoniwa (We cannot forget, we refuse to forget)

Jojo akasarako kusango (Jojo did not make it from the war)

Molly akasara ikoko (Molly also never came back)

Lavhu akasarako kuhondo (Lavhu did not make it from the war)

Jona akasara ikoko (Jona also never came back)

Mweya wadzungaira mweya (The spirit is restless)

Mweya wadzungaira (The spirit is restless)

Mavaudza amai vake here (Have you told his/her mother?)

Kuti mwana wenyu akashaikaka akafire kusango kure, nyika dzisina aniko (That her son/daughter died in the bush, in lands far away from home?)

Makumbira kudzinza rake, (Have you performed the cultural rites to his ancestors?)

Kuti tambirai mwana uyu kani,

(To ask them to receive his spirit

Mupei pekugara azorore, igamba rehondo (please give him a peaceful rest, because he is a hero of the war)

Mweya wadzungaira mweya (The spirit of the deceased is restless …)

This is a song that Chimbetu in the late 1990s, at a time when the veterans of the liberation war were getting restless. After nearly two decades of independence, their lives were miserable. Their leaders were detached from them and the ordinary people. There was a lot of corruption, greed and conspicuous consumption among the leadership. The war veterans eventually got compensation packages in late 1997.

In this song, Chimbetu once again sings about the combatants who died during the war. The narrator in the song is a veteran of the war who is reminding his comrades that while they are enjoying the spoils, there are others who never returned from the war. He reminds them that while they are full, there are many who are hungry. He asks them if they have spoken to the deceased comrade’s mother, telling her that her son/daughter in the bush far away from home. He asks if they have performed the cultural rites so that the ancestors of the deceased’s comrade can accept his spirit so that the spirit can rest in peace.

All in all, in the song, Chimbetu pokes the conscience of the leadership, reminding them that there are others who paid the ultimate price, who left parents and families that also need to be taken care of, and whose spirits need to be respected. It’s one of Chimbetu’s most powerful songs, one that evokes memories of courage and sacrifice but also laments the betrayal of the fallen comrades by the leaders who survived. It’s a reminder of the disconnection between the leadership, who are living well and the ordinary people, who are living miserable lives. Even today, it’s a song that if they paid attention to it, reminds them that they have lost direction and they have betrayed the promise of liberation.

One day, I shall write more from Chimbetu’s rich discography, but these three suffice for purposes of Independence Day.


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