Celebrating Independence Day and the right to vote

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The Herald

Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
“This year, Independence Day is in midweek, yabhowa,” said my niece Shamiso, meaning she does not like the idea of people celebrating Independence Day during the week.
She is 22 and a mother of two.

Sometime last year, Shamiso found a new Pentecostal church.
Since then, nothing else matters, except going to church any day and any time of the week.
Shamiso is disappointed because her pastor said the congregation should participate in Independence celebrations with everyone else across the country.

He has ruled out that there will be prayer meetings or Bible study this Wednesday as he would be in his hometown of Guruve, attending various functions to celebrate Independence.

“We must respect and honour those who fought for the liberation of this country and enabled us to get the right to vote,” said the pastor.

“Why should we all celebrate Independence? And why is everyone talking about voting? What is the point of voting anyway?” Shamiso asked, hands resting on her hips, standing in my kitchen while carefully monitoring the movements of her baby crawling around on the tiled floor.

Before I could answer, my cousin Reuben quickly addressed Shamiso saying, “What kind of question is that you dunderhead? Did they not teach you history at school?” Shamiso frowned and said she knew all the history there was to know.
After all, she passed history at O-Level.

“All I am asking is why Independence and voting is such a big deal. I am not a fool,” said Shamiso.
“If your history teachers did not teach you the importance of voting, who can teach you now?” Reuben asked, looking at me, as if I had all the answers.

Shamiso, like many children born after Independence, does not understand the real meaning of freedom or what life was like under colonial rule in Rhodesia. I do. “You have to teach her,” I said.

“We must all teach them.” “Teach me too,” said Piri, chewing the bone of a chicken drumstick, sitting on my kitchen stool, swinging her legs backwards and forwards, a can of beer in hand.

“Who will teach old people like you? You have to teach yourself the history of Zimbabwe and why you have to vote.
“The right to vote came to us through the liberation struggle,” said Reuben.

He grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and sat on the stool opposite Shamiso. Then Reuben got into his lecturing mood. He said, “Sometimes Zimbabweans surprise me. I am not just referring to you guys in this kitchen. No. I mean the guys who are in the Diaspora and also those I meet at the local soccer games and in the pubs. They make a lot of noise about free and fair elections, democracy and all that. And yet they are not registered to vote. I feel sorry for the registered Diaspora voters who cannot vote. There is no reason why people cannot register to vote if they live here. This way they can express the democratic rights they like to talk about.”

“Haisi mhosva yedu Bhudhi. Hatina ruzivo about voting. Ndakanzwa kuti kare voting yaive yevarungu nevane mari,” said Piri laughing.

By this she meant that there was lack education regarding history and why people should vote. She recalled a time before Independence when elders used to tell her that voting was for Europeans only and Africans with money.
I remember hearing the same from my father, many years ago, long before the liberation war.

One night, when we were young, my father gathered us together around a paraffin lamp. Speaking like the teacher that he was, he lowered his voice and said there was an African nationalist movement ready to fight colonial rule so that we could rule ourselves.

At that time, as children, we did not understand why voting was important for Africans. Looking back to our past experiences in colonial Rhodesia, it was unthinkable that an African could have the right to vote for anyone into Parliament.

When I was going to primary school, the Prime Minister of Rhodesia was Ian Douglas Smith. He was born on April 8, 1919 near Shurugwi.

Smith found the Rhodesian Front and he became Prime Minister in April 1964. In 1965, there was a conference convened by the Rhodesia Government under the chairmanship of the British Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs, Mr Duncan Sandys.

The objective of the conference was to seek an inclusive way of participation for all races in the Government.
They laid down voting qualifications for all people, regardless of race. This was based on a system called the “A” Roll for the country’s 50 normal constituencies.

The “B” Roll covered 15 electoral districts. But Africans could be allowed to vote only if they demonstrated “fitness” as well as “the necessary merit or ability”.

They were also expected to meet “certain property, income or educational qualifications”.
Given that the majority of Africans were denied education and jobs, the majority did not qualify to vote.

In a parliamentary paper titled, “Rhodesian Democracy and the Constitution”, under the “A” Roll, everyone was expected to have the following qualifications: (a) Income of £792 or ownership of property of value of £1 650. (b) Income of £528 or ownership of property of value of £1 100 and completion of a course of primary education. (c) Income of £330 or ownership of property of value of £550 and four years’ secondary education; (d) Appointment to the office of Chief or Headman. Under the less stringent “B” Roll, these were the requirements: (a) Income of £264 or ownership of property of the value of £495. (b) Income of £132 or ownership of property of the value of £275 and two years’ secondary education. (c) Over 30 years of age and income of £132 or ownership of property of value of £275 and primary education. (d) Over 30 years of age and income of £198 or ownership of property of value of £385. (e) Kraal heads with a following of 20 or more heads of families. (f) Ministers of religion.

The only Africans who could qualify, apart from the headmen, kraal heads and ministers of religion were black businessmen.
Some of them lived in massive houses in Highfield or Marimba Park.

In addition to the lack of voting rights, Africans had been dispossessed of land and they had little access to education.
The Africans rebelled and resisted. In retaliation, Ian Smith introduced ruthless detention without trial, secret police and martial law.

Smith is remembered in history for his Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain (UDI), and his speech in which he said that black majority rule would never happen: “I don’t believe in majority rule ever in Rhodesia . . . not in 1 000 years . . . . .” After the declaration of UDI, Smith was to rule Rhodesia with brutality for 15 years. When the liberation war began, it was very much centred on the right for every African man or woman over the age of 18 to vote and the return of land back to its rightful owners.

During the Zimbabwean war against colonial rule, the Rhodesian army and its mercenaries (who included the notorious Selous Scouts and Gray Scouts) used Zimbabwe as a laboratory for testing the effectiveness of biological weapons on people.

Biological warfare chemicals resulting in rinderpest, anthrax and organophosphate poisons being used. The Rhodesian army inflicted atrocities on people in the rural areas, including the indiscriminate slaughter of men, women and children.
They killed people in refugee camps in Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana from 1975 to 1979.

Memories of war are painful. In the end, Smith and the Rhodesian army lost the war. Talks were held at Lancaster House in the UK. In 1980, Zimbabweans voted and black majority rule was won through a landslide victory.

Bob Marley came to celebrate Zimbabwe’s Independence and he played “Peace has come to Zimbabwe” at Rufaro Stadium.
Thirty eight years later, we were gathered here in my kitchen in Harare last week.

“So, have you registered to vote?” Reuben asked. Shamiso shrugged her shoulders and said she did not know where to go.
Reuben said Shamiso should have registered to vote when the call to do so came on radio, television and newspapers.
There were tents everywhere. But it is never too late to register. She should find the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission offices and take her ID with her. Shamiso nodded.

We hoped she would follow through and do the right thing. On Independence Day, we shall be back in the village.
Everyone in our village has contributed $2 towards buying a big beast that will be slaughtered on the April 18 to celebrate Independence Day.

We shall acknowledge the hardships of the past, celebrate the freedom of the present and look to the future with hope
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.

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