The foundation of Zimbabwean nationhood is militarised and rests on the Chimurenga narrative. This narrative depicts Zimbabwe as a struggle nation born out of struggle phases, starting from the First Chimurenga, which is associated with the likes of Nehanda, Kaguvi and Chaminuka, Zimbabwe’s most documented spirit mediums.
By Tinashe Mawere
For decades, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) has used the symbols and rhetoric of the liberation war to authorise and legitimate its claim to power. Oppositional voices, women and emasculated men have been accused of adulterating the Chimurenga legacy and, therefore, needed to be guarded against and excluded from national leadership.
From within Zanu PF itself, the stories of members seen as digressing are rewritten and erased of heroism and glory associated with the liberation war. It is this imagination of a militarised nationhood that has shaped the roles of war veterans, the appointment of leadership and the national trajectory.
The role of war veterans
In 2001war veterans were appointed as a reserve army of the State. This was after they had been successfully used as instruments of oppositional onslaught and land takeovers in the post 2000 period, following the constitutional referendum which Zanu PF lost. From then on, the war veterans have been used as a visible and living symbol of Chimurenga. In many incidences, war veterans have claimed to be custodians of the liberation movement and the guardian council of national leadership.
They have also threatened the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leadership, both during Morgan Tsvangirai’s era and into the Nelson Chamisa epoch, with the MDC labelled an imperial front working to reverse the gains of the liberation struggle. In the absence of a succession plan in Zimbabwe, the masculinist notion of Zimbabwean nationhood was under threat as Grace, former President Robert Mugabe’s wife, rose to power and prominence in the course of Mugabe’s advanced age.
Grace’s rise, which was supported and facilitated by a ZanuPF faction without liberation war credentials, the Generation 40 (G40), gradually pushed those with liberation history away from power. This saw the expulsion of some war veteran leaders such as Christopher Mutsvangwa from government and party, and its climax was the expulsion of Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa. This climax created a narrative of State capture by emasculated men and people without history and a language of restoring and protecting the liberation legacy, a role which can only be performed by those with the said history.
This ultimately led to the November coup and a siege on the G40, who were labelled ‘criminals around President Mugabe’ by the army, which basically is aligned to the war veterans and has war veterans at its helm. Mugabe’s recall from being leader of the party and government should be seen in the context of his compromised manhood as he had used the bedroom instead of the liberation war cult to decide the nation’s destiny.
His association with the G40 defiled the masculinities expected from him as mwana wevhu (son of the soil) and cut him off from amadoda sibili (real man), who are vanguards of the nation. War veterans also made threats to Chamisa, Mugabe and the United States at their press conference held a day before the Constitutional Court (ConCourt) proceedings where Chamisa was challenging Mnangagwa’s election victory.
In Zimbabwe, anyone without liberation war history is regarded a coward, feminised and seen as a sell out or an entry point of national pollution or contamination. The Norton constituency parliamentary representative, Temba Mliswa, has often labelled the G40 gay gangsters. Such defilement has been associated with the MDC, especially its leaders. Mnangagwa’s choice of Oppah Muchinguri was informed by the need to preserve militaristic masculinities while cleaning the masculinist image of the nation and army.
Cde Oppah, the wo(man) behind the army
Muchinguri is one of the few female ministers in Mnangagwa’s highly masculinised Cabinet. She was appointed minister of Defence and War Veterans, a very crucial ministry in Zimbabwean politics. Muchinguri is suspected to have been Josiah Magama Tongogara, the ZANLA commander’s lover during the liberation struggle. She was in the same car with Tongogara when he died and is implicated as having been used to conceal his suspected assassination just before independence.
There are also stories that in the post-independence, she was Mugabe’s mistress (small house) and that Mugabe used the relationship to protect secrets that she knew. Although the stories around her private life are unverified, they create controversies that might be reflective of her changing political loyalties, hence her usefulness as a pawn in the game of power. On several incidences, Muchinguri attacked officials for neglecting the affairs of war veterans, who she regarded as important in the nation’s struggle history.
She worked with Mnangagwa to push former Vice President Joice Mujuru out of office and the party, and reports claim that she has been the godmother of the Mnangagwa faction against the G40. Considering her liberation war history, her service to the desires of ‘great’ men like Tongogara, Mugabe and Mnangagwa, her location of and within the war veteran narrative, it is challenging to identify Muchinguri with the interests of women. It is equally challenging to locate her priorities outside the dictates of a masculinist and militarist State.
The Crocodile and the elusive new dispensation
After his military assisted entrance as the new President of Zimbabwe in November 2017, Mnangagwa, also known as Garwe (the crocodile), has positioned himself as representing the new. However, what happened on the first of August where the army opened fire in a real war-style against protesting civilians, killing at seven people, points to something else.
In an ugly way it shows that although Robert Mugabe left in November, his system of rule remains intact and useful to the ‘new’ dispensation. Zimbabwe is still a masculinist and military State. While the appointment of Muchinguri, a woman, might appear to be sanitising the role of the military and giving a public image of putting the army under check, her identity as a war veteran maintains the old and biased role of the army in the State.
Considering Muchinguri’s above location, she only acts as the public relations image, especially following the August shooting incident, but the real face of the army is the strong masculinist men at the helm of war veterans. The idea of the new in the post-Mugabe era remains a futile attempt of a fly trying to find a new and exciting life in a crocodile’s mouth. The current dispensation still mirrors a warrior-masculinist national project that pays attention only to military men and military projects.
The little space left for women is there to hide the excesses of military men and those spaces are left guarded by wo(men) like Muchinguri, who are masculinised and represent the interests of men. It is likely that the appointment of Muchinguri is not an attempt to feminise or censor the army, especially after the August mess, but a way of sanitising the highly parochial and militaristic regime in the context of the narrative of a new dispensation and openness.
Tinashe Mawere is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies and the Centre for Sexualities, Aids and Gender at the University of Pretoria. The above views are founded on some of his work around nationalism, gender and sexuality carried out at the University of Western Cape’s Women’s and Gender Studies department and the Centre for Humanities Research and the department of Historical and Heritage Studies and the Centre for Sexualities, Aids and Gender at the University of Pretoria.
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