As the nation gears to celebrate Heroes’ Day, The Herald’s Christopher Charamba (CC) sat down with Secretary for Welfare Services for War Veterans, War Collaborators, Former Political Detainees and Restrictees, Retired Brigadier General Asher Tapfumaneyi (AT) to discuss the importance of the day and what it means to be a Zimbabwean hero.
CC: On Monday the nation will be celebrating Heroes’ Day. What is the significance of this day to the people of Zimbabwe, especially in this current time, 37 years after our Independence?
AT: I want to start by saying that to many, particularly generations that are post the liberation struggle, Heroes Day might just sound like a holiday but this week, this August week is very significant in the history of the liberation struggle.
As you may be aware, August 8 is the day when ZANU was formed back then in the ’60s, together with ZAPU which it broke away from. It then went on to carry the liberation struggle until the attainment of independence in 1980.
Then we have the Nyadzonya massacre on August 9, 1976 where thousands of school going age children who were unarmed and untrained in a refugee camp were massacred by the Rhodesians in cold blood.
So the National Heroes’ Day celebrates all the declared and undeclared fallen heroes of the liberation struggle.
All those who died fighting for Zimbabwe are celebrated on that day.
That’s the significance of National Heroes’ Day and we the living who survived some of these atrocities then take time to reminisce to relate with that past and to also feel back to those times when we buried our colleagues.
CC: You mentioned that it’s to celebrate all heroes that perished and those who fought in the liberation struggle. There are different classes for heroes especially when they are buried; district, provincial and national, how is that status accorded and what are the differences in the different classes.
AT: That status is accorded through Zanu-PF structures because Zanu-PF as you are aware is the union between ZAPU and ZANU from 22 December 1987 and prior to that there had always been the Patriotic Front.
The war, if you want, going back to after 1975, was fought jointly at the strategic level under the Patriotic Front. All those talks Geneva, Malta and up to Lancaster were conducted jointly by ZANU and ZAPU under the Patriotic Front.
After the upheavals of the early 1980s, the two parties then formally came together uniting the people of Zimbabwe across ethnic groups, across regions under the Unity Accord. So Heroes’ Day symbolises that unity, we then celebrate all those who passed on during the liberation struggle on the ZAPU side and on the ZANU side.
CC: Can you give a bit more clarity on the specific differences between a district, provincial and national hero.
AT: The status is given according to a person’s recognised contribution to the liberation struggle or after independence in the cause of Zimbabwe’s struggle.
As you know the physical struggle of freedom, the liberation struggle, the fight, ended in 1980. We are now in the economic phase of our liberation so it continues, that’s why you see that some people who excelled after independence will be accorded national hero status and it’s entirely the prerogative of Zanu-PF.
We as a ministry can make recommendations, but it’s up to the structures of the party to accord national hero status or provincial, liberation war or whatever. People have often asked why it is Zanu-PF that accords heroes’ status.
Zanu-PF is the party that fought the liberation struggle, it’s the party that identifies and it’s the party that groomed the people who then fought and it knows the people who fought the liberation struggle, it’s got the institutional memory of the liberation struggle.
That’s why it is the one that owns the national hero statuses. I think you heard the President at some point during the Constitution-making process, he said if there are other types of heroism that we want to celebrate as a people, we can start a different system. It’s a political issue that can be debated, but for people to challenge national or provincial or district heroes’ status based on the liberation struggle when they were not in the liberation struggle, it is wrong you see.
This is heroes’ status we are talking about, this national Heroes’ Day is about the liberation struggle which ZANU-PF led, that’s why we are where we are.
CC: With regards to the upkeep of these monuments where these heroes are buried, who is responsible for that?
AT: It’s a shared responsibility between the Ministry of Local Government and National Museums and Monuments.
As a ministry you know we have only been in existence for two years now since 2015, we too have an interest now in the maintenance of those shrines.
I can share with the nation that for example we have just spent some money towards the Chimoio shrine in Mozambique.
We are working with the National Museums and Monuments to make the Chimoio shrine representative of all the happenings on the ZANLA side in Mozambique then when we are done with Chimoio we will go to Freedom Camp in Zambia and do the same.
We want to put up a permanent exhibition which depicts in pictorial format the history of the liberation struggle, the major events, the major milestones of the liberation struggle so that it becomes more or less like the liberation war tourism where people will go, be accommodated and spend a night maybe on that side reminiscing. They will also hear about the history because there will be curators there and narrators, orators who will tell the story.
At Chimoio for example, as I speak we are building an entrance gate, a befitting structure and then we are also putting up a fence around the camp.
There are 22 graves in and around Chimoio each one containing about 700 bodies who were massacred in one day, within a few hours.
The place has got this eerie feeling, when you go there it’s not like a usual walk in the park, you feel it, you feel that there was death in large numbers.
We are trying to dignify the place, to preserve it for posterity and also to document what happened.
Locally, the National Heroes Acre is the centre and is well-looked after by the central government. The Provincial and District Heroes Acres, we are now carrying out interventions here and there to try and get partners and sponsors to make sure that we spruce up the places.
We had a situation for example at Harare Provincial Heroes Acre where there are 440 graves now.
Many of them had gone unmarked for a long time to the point where as memory is lost and people change offices, it becomes difficult to know who we buried there. Luckily the National Museums and Monuments have got a map of the graves with names and everything.
So we are now working with Progressive Insurance, as part of their corporate social responsibility, to build concrete slabs on 400 of the 440 graves and put markings so that we don’t go back to the situation where the place is dilapidated. They are also going to be putting a wall.
We are also working with the army who have given us 15 engineers, builders you would say, though in the army we call them engineers.
They are the ones who are building the graves, led by a lieutenant colonel and a major who are now permanently there building the graves using materials that were supplied by Progressive Insurance.
The other 40 were already done because they are of soldiers who are still covered by the army. So the army has put some tombstones already on the 40 graves. We are dealing with the 400 comrades who are not in the army.
Now that there is a ministry, we are following up on these graves.
CC: You spoke about 440 comrades buried at the Harare Provincial Heroes Acre and it is estimated that there are 34 000 surviving war veterans, what is being done to share the stories of these people? We speak about Heroes Day and while Zimbabweans are aware of the general history of the liberation struggle, there is a lack of personal stories of the people who participated. A lot of our heroes are buried without books or films to tell their stories, at times the narrative also changes depending on the political situation in the country. So what is being done for there to be documentation of these people’s stories and these stories being available to the wider Zimbabwean population?
AT: We have a mandate as a ministry to document officially the story of the liberation struggle. In doing so we work with everybody else who is involved, the Ministry of Information, the security forces and Zanu-PF. You ask a very pertinent question about documentation, about the story of the liberation struggle which is not told. It is not yet told to even a small percentage. The stories of the dead, we go to Heroes Acre and maybe the President gives a speech and we venerate those who would have died, we bury him and we forget. Most of the time it is now on Heroes Day when the families will then visit but the story is still mystified, it’s not there in the open.
This is a challenge that we have as a ministry to ensure that the story is told at individual and at collective level. There are for example operational records, of the liberation struggle, when the likes of Air Marshall (Perrance) Shiri were at the front. They used to write reports that would go to the rear, to the Central Committee and so on, at the height of the war.
Those documents are there but they are lying in a state which is not properly preserved and catalogued and they are not easily accessible to your average researcher in a manner that does not destroy the original documents.
We want to preserve that record and at the same time electronify it and make it accessible to researchers so that the story of the liberation struggle is told. Your question is a very basic one, it’s like you are talking of the comrade we are burying today (Thursday), Cde Gwachaira who died in India where he had gone for treatment. Who will tell his story to posterity, even to his children, other than what he told them around the fire now and again?
Is his story preserved? Can someone then relate to Gwachaira? That’s the challenge that we have as a ministry and as a government, as a people even, to make sure that the story of the liberation struggle is demystified and it’s not forgotten.
CC: Why has it taken so long for this to happen? We are 37 years after our independence.
AT: I think it’s a question of priorities and as a scholar myself I am also critical of our system. I don’t know whether it’s our culture, we are not a writing people, we don’t tell our stories. Those who have told their stories wrote in anger so the story is distorted by anger. If you go to Tekere’s book, if you go to most of the books published, those people wrote when they had fallen out of favour with Zanu-PF and they started looking for faults. Even the movies, Flame for example, that movie that was done, it’s someone who is now trying find fault in the liberation struggle, who then goes at a negative angle and tells the story making himself the James Bond of the liberation struggle and everybody else was a villain in the process. I believe while we are alive, I’m 58-years-old now and I’m the youth of the liberation struggle, I still believe we have the thrust and we have been to school, we should be able to write the story accurately without anger while we still feel wanted by society. So my answer to you, it’s a very emotive issue, but we have to write that story, we must. Who will tell the President’s story? Why should it wait to be told by someone else? He’s 93 turning 94, maybe he has been writing notes somewhere, somebody found the notes and decided to make money out of it. Why don’t we tell our story whilst we are still alive?
CC: You spoke of people writing out of anger and emotive. Of late we have seen quite a lot of emotion, if I can call it that being expressed by the war veterans association and looking at the wide influence of the war veterans and what’s happening now in the political sphere of Zimbabwe, what is the ministry doing to bring cohesion among this group of people?
AT: Our mandate as a ministry also includes organising and unifying war veterans. That is the political side of this ministry, the rest is technical it’s in the four acts of Parliament that we administer, the War Veterans Act, the Ex-Detainees Act, the War Victims Compensation Act and the National Heroes Act as read with the Constitution; Section 3, Section 23 and Section 84. The War Veterans’ Association, I want to make it categorically clear, is a private voluntary organisation and not all 34 000 war veterans are members of the association.
Secondly, by some rough estimates, some research that was done unofficial research only 23 percent or below of war veterans are members of the association. Even assuming that in exact figures 23 percent of the 34 000 are members of the association, which is also even putting it too far, within the association itself there is no consensus on some of the behaviours that have been taking place. I want this to be very clear.
So when I sit here as a ministry it hurts me when the media being sensational as you want to be, you say war veterans have said this. One war veteran appears wearing some mad t-shirt and its as if all are saying it, we are not like that.
We want a constructive good conversation to carry on between the party and the war veterans. We are children of the party, and in the constitution of Zanu-PF we are recognised as the foundation upon which the party shall continue to build itself for as long as we live.
So we want to be there on the table in the party. We want to have an opinion on how the party is run, the direction it will take and also to preserve its ideology. Without its ideology Zanu-PF is like any other political party in Zimbabwe.
It’s the ideology; its egalitarian socialist, pan-Africanist ideology that makes Zanu-PF different from all the other parties in the country, and that is the ideology that brought independence, land reform, education for all which makes us 90 percent literate and the best in Africa, it’s the ideology that has brought indigenisation and economic empowerment, it is the ideology behind Zim-Asset.
We expect that that conversation between generations, the generation that fought, ourselves and the youth continues so that we bequeath something that is Zanu-PF. If we don’t we risk Zanu-PF being succeeded by something that is not Zanu-PF but calling itself Zanu-PF.
You are raising emotive issues but that us as war veterans are worried when the war veterans’ association become divided like what happened in February 2016 with the likes of Mandi Chimene pronouncing that they are rebelling against Mutsvangwa because the war veterans were the example of unity even to Zanu-PF.
We want to bring things back into line. A s ministry we think the way to go is not so much trying to unify war veterans in the war veterans’ association it’s too unrepresentative, too small, too voluntary and too restricted by law for that role.
The best way, since the party has already created a war veterans’ secretariat in the politburo in Cde Sekaramayi, which had a deputy Mr Mutsvangwa and there is now an administrative department of war veterans with General Zabanya General Nyathi at the party, the way to go is to cascade that structure down to the cell, so that the war veterans are a wing like the youths and the women.
Never mind if only five of them are left in the country, they will be a wing and when we are all gone due to age then it’s another day, but the party is stronger with its war veterans. That’s where we are driving, to cascade the structures in the party.
CC: You spoke about ideology, what message would you have to the youth of Zimbabwe in relation to building an ideology and how this relates to Heroes Day?
AT: So I for one am very passionate about ideology, I’m active within the Chitepo college of ideology I’m a resource person not because I went to university to study Zanu-PF ideology it’s because I grew up in it.
I went to war in 1976 as a little boy and I sat without a book. I studied Mao, Lenin, and all other theorists until the point where I can sit anybody down, even Morgan Tsvangirai to talk to him about Zanu-PF ideology.
If he likes Zanu-PF I don’t have to beat him up to join Zanu-PF but I can convince him and he will join Zanu-PF because of ideology. So this is what we would like as war veterans to continue to play that role in the party.
The difference between today’s youth and our time when we were youth, the people who fought the war those who were on the frontlines were 16 or 17 years old, your average Form Six pupil right now.
The youth of today, because of new definitions, are now old men, 35 years old. Some have been youth for the past 10 years and that wind, the wind of nationalism, that wind of belonging, that sense of loyalty to the nation not to Zanu-PF, to the dreams of the people of Zimbabwe has been replaced by materialistic needs.
The language now is we want stands, come and let’s meet and we give you stands, we give you rice, that is counterproductive. We want a youth which has got an ideological ground, a youth that will then carry the revolution forward, that’s if we still have a revolution beyond us.
I know you will go, the president will go, I will go, all of us will soon go, our generation will go. The generation that will remain, all of you, what did you identify with? What is it that you are prepared to die for in Zimbabwe? We were ready to die to liberate it and we buried a lot of our colleagues.
I handled hundreds of dead bodies when I was 16 years old myself, you cannot delete that from my mind, I am traumatised by that. It was for Zimbabwe.
Now if you become too materialistic and parcel it along material lines and when things run out we start fighting each other, the whole stability we have had for the past 37 years resides mainly in that factor, war veteran.
Even when we threw stones at each other in the 1980 still that factor of liberation struggle is the one that brought us together to negotiate unity and sign an accord and one morning there was no fighting in Zimbabwe.
So it’s something… that peace dividend, that we have to work for to preserve and inculcate in our youth.