Reimagining the hero(ine) status in Zimbabwe

For many, it appeared like a classic case of poetic justice when the government bestowed the national hero status to celebrated musician Oliver Mtukudzi who died aged 66 last year.

At peak of his career, Mtukudzi who was affectionately known as Tuku, churned out a song titled “Hero”.

The controversial song posed rhetoric questions to authorities in Harare on what was required for one to be declared a hero.

When Mtukudzi composed the song in the 1990s fellow musicians like Safario Madzikatire, James Chimombe just to mention a few had died and there had been no recognition by the government—either state-assisted burial or hero status.

The declaration of the hero status—be it at district, provincial and national level has been a prerogative of the ruling party.

Tuku’s song questioned this.

Philanthropists like Jairos Jiri surely deserved some form of recognition.

Mtukudzi, who died at the height of last year’s food riots, was buried at his his rural home in Madziwa village in Mt Darwin.

As Zimbabwe commemorates Heroes Day next week, debate on who should be declared a national hero ordinarily gains traction.

A few months before Tuku’s death, long-time leader Robert Mugabe’s demise left authorities with an egg on their faces after his family made a shock announcement to the effect that the deceased preferred his remains to be interred at his rural home in Kutama.

This came a few days after the government had engaged contractors to set up a mausoleum in honour of Mugabe who had become the incumbent leader’s mentor-cum-tormentor.

Mugabe had since independence officiated over the burial of many “heroes” some of whom their war credentials had been questioned.

Names like Border Gezi, Chenjerai Hunzvi, and Elliot Manyika among others come to mind. Not much has been said about their role in the bush war that ushered in self-rule and that became a talking point on Mugabe’s hypocrisy as well as his legacy.

Conspicuous by their absence at the national shrine are heroes like Lookout Masuku and Dumiso Dabengwa both Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) ex-combatants.

Masuku was one of the post-independence victims of the 1980s disturbances in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces whom Mugabe disdained till death. Dabengwa on the other hand chose to be buried at his Ntabazinduna village.

The list of unsung former Zipra combatants who were not accorded national hero status is long.

The death of another Zipra ex-combatant Stanley Nleya in June also reignited the debate on how historians have whitewashed narratives on the war to be skewed in favour of Zanla trained ex-fighters who now command influential positions at the national level.

Many only learnt of Nleya extolled liberation virtues when his obituary was penned.

Here is a man who trained decorated servicemen like current Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander Phillip Valerio Sibanda.

Nleya’s death also gave many an insight into the life of a hero. At 72, he was working at a liquor shop owned by his nephew. Zanu PF conferred national hero’s status on Retired Lieutenant Colonel Masala Sibanda after he had been buried at Lady Stanley cemetery saying the delay was due to communication challenges among the leaders.

As the generation of liberation war fighters approaches their twilight Zimbabwe should seriously consider having new guidelines on who should be declared a hero or heroine.

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