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Who speaks for the dead?: The grave, the cemetery, the shrine, the stage?

Posted on May 9, 2011
The Zimbabwean heroes acres with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the foreground, the eternal fire tower in the background and elaborate stone work deco derived from the chevron pattern of the Great Zimbabwe archaeological site. (Picture by Author)

The Zimbabwean heroes acres with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the foreground, the eternal fire tower in the background and elaborate stone work deco derived from the chevron pattern of the Great Zimbabwe archaeological site. (Picture by Author)

Monuments to the dead

Recently a Zimbabwean colleague I work with in Lesotho travelled to Harare, Zimbabwe for business. He brought back with him a hoard of Zimbabwean newspapers for us to be able to catch up with news from home. Though we can read most of them online, there is always an eerie feeling of handling a printed copy. 18 April is Zimbabwe's Independence Day and its festivities dominated the news. But there was also a long treatise on burial of a ‘national hero' at the national cemetery- the Heroes' acre. The 57-acre site is situated on a ridge seven kilometres from Harare. The monument was constructed by the government in 1981 with the assistance of Koreans to bury, celebrate and commemorate the gallant sons and daughters who paid their sacrifices for the liberation of the country from colonial domination. The subject of death, the dead and gone by heroes and heroines is something that always dominates the Zimbabwean public media especially during national holidays and events such as the independence celebrations in April, the heroes' & defence forces days in August and the Unity day in December of every year.

In a local weekly that my friend brought, two articles caught my attention and got me reflecting on the subject of death and the dead. The first article was titled 'ZANU PF turning to departed spirits?' and the second was 'Blast from the Past: Skeletons Live to tell the Tale'. The stories got me pondering on the place of death, and the dead in the postcolonial reality of Zimbabwe. The first article related the case of numerous trips made by the ruling ZANU PF top officials to numerous sites where Zimbabweans were massacred by the Smith regime during the war of liberation (1960s to 1980). Nyadzonia and Chimoio in Mozambique were refugee camps where in the late 1970s civilians were bombed by the Smith regime leading to loss of thousands of lives of refugees. The second story related the story of an alleged manipulation by ZANU PF of the 'discovery' of hundreds of bodies in a disused mine shaft at Chibondo, in Mount Darwin, about 160km north of the capital Harare. The dead bodies were believed to be of liberation war fighters killed during the war in the 70s.

On Death

The subject of death scares me and I would not be anywhere near a dead body if I could help it. When I was growing up, the subject of death was taboo for any young people. Cemeteries were out of bounce and funerals were the preserve of the elderly. Today death is approached differently and the dead are treated differently. Nowadays deaths, especially the festivities associated with burials are a public spectacle, almost a show. Funerals are almost jolly events with folks clad in latest designer clothing, sleek vehicles and the most expensive caskets being put out in the open for everyone to marvel. Burial almost concentrates on boosting an impression for the living rather than the deceased. The lifeless bodies in the coffins become objects, mediums through which families, the bereaved perform to the public. The dead body has become a medium through which we project ourselves, as a family, a community and as a state. There is a way in which as a society we manipulate, gain mileage and profit from death and the dead. The dead, the cadaver, and bones become social, cultural and political capital to be harnessed by and for the profit of the living.

Bones and Politics

Visitors touring the Heroes Acres looking at three Bronze panels on the liberation struggle, independence and the election of R.G. Mugabe. (Picture by authorIn March 2011 it came to light that a group calling itself Fallen Heroes Association of Zimbabwe had discovered in a mine, remains of an estimated 2 000 (the estimates vary depending on what you read with one article in the state controlled paper claiming over 6000 ) remains from a disused mine in Mt Darwin. They claimed that the bodies were of fighters and civilians killed and burnt with acid a mine in Northern Zimbabwe. ZANU PF said the bodies were of women, children and liberation war fighters killed by Rhodesian forces 32 years ago and thrown into mine. In a public show of solidarity, Zimbabwe's sole broadcasters the ZBCTV, aired clips of exhumed bodies, encouraging everyone to witness the brutality of the colonial state. Reporters were taken to the mine and school children were bussed to witness the evidence of atrocities committed by the colonial regime. As they denounced the white colonial state, western sanctions, they also sang and danced against the MDC, the opposition party for siding with the former colonial power.

The Former liberation war fighters and members of the Fallen Heroes Association of Zimbabwe claimed that they have been carrying out such exhumations across the country since Independence in 1980 to afford their departed colleagues decent burials. ZANU PF was quick to connect the bodies to what it called the atrocities of the colonial regime. In the local daily one commentator remarked "When we talk of what happened during the liberation struggle, most people and youths think that it is a joke."Look what happened here? Everyone should know that these gallant sons and daughters sacrificed their lives for this country....That is why we always say that there is need to safeguard this country's heritage....You have seen and witnessed what happened here. It is now important to know where we came from and where we are going'. On the evidence of the retrieved bone, the government alleged that the colonial regimes were guilty of human rights violations that far outweighed any accusations of rights abuses currently levelled against Robert Mugabe.

Yet others, mainly opposition parties saw the exhumations as being manipulated by the ruling party for political mileage to whip up their anti- colonial, anti- west propaganda. They saw the exhumations as yet another grand ZANU PF campaign strategy with the state media being used to whip up emotions ahead of elections expected later this year. This has led to some people speculating that although the mine shafts might have some remains of freedom fighters, there could also be corpses of MDC activists killed during the past violent elections. They also suspected victims of Gukurahundi (a civil unrest in the 1980s where the Matebeleland based ZAPU supporters were massacred) atrocities were among the corpses. They alleged that some of the exhumed bodies were still intact and therefore could be recent than the claim that these were bodies of victims of the war of liberation before 1980. In fact some claimed that some of the bodies could be as recent as the 2008 general elections.

The opposition also viewed the actions of the government as manipulating and trying to conceal the proper information by not carrying out proper investigations into the identity of the bodies. School children, teachers and villagers were forced to go underground and view the bodies so that they would appreciate the extent of the brutalities of the Rhodesian army. As I wrote this article, a high court judge had ordered a halt to the exhumation of the skeletons. Justice Nicholas Mathonsi granted an interdict sought by the Zimbabwe People's Liberation Army (ZIPRA) war heroes who are demanded that any exhumations in Mt Darwin, and any part of the country should be carried out in a government-led 'legal process'. The interdict compelled the Fallen Heroes' Trust to stop the exhumations, leading to a government process which would seek to identify the remains where possible and facilitate reburial. A Human rights group Amnesty International warned also encouraged proper forensic processes to be carried out as the graves could be a potential crime scene.

Dead Bones Rising

The subject of the connection between the dead and political process is not new to the Zimbabwean political landscape. The politicisation of the dead, the use of cemeteries as stages platforms for showing, criticising and performance comes clearly in the post indepence political landscape in Zimbabwe. There is historical precedence to this phenomenon. The dead, bones, and cemeteries have always been objects, platform for the advancement of a political will in Zimbabwean history. The dead ancestors, leaders and spirit mediums such as Mbuya Nehanda who prophesied at her execution in 1897 that 'her bones would rise' again to conquer white settler domination inspired nationalists to wage war against Ian Smith's regime in the 1960s to 1980. The dead have always been useful. At independence in 1981 the new black majority government with the help of Koreans constructed an impressive and physically impressive National Heroes Acres. Pregnant with symbolism in its architecture, structure and iconography, the cemetery is where all man and women who are considered to have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country are interred and commemorated. It is a huge physically imposing monument to the dead, a monument to a historical event—the liberation struggle. In the 1990s the state embarked on rehabilitation of war victims in the neighbouring countries, also creating small replicas of the national heroes' shrines in these spaces. The state embarked on a project to identify, exhume and rehabilitate graves of Zimbabweans who died in neighbouring countries. The project saw rehabilitation of graves in Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania.

The cemetery, the spectacle

The debate associated with exhumation of dead bodies in a mine in Northern Zimbabwe talk to a lot of issues associated with the treatment of the dead. The marshalling of the dead body as evidence. The body as a fragment, a trace to be associated with historic events, in this case the atrocity of the Smith regime (or according to others that of Robert Mugabe). The body becomes an object for competing claims, narratives and counter-narratives with the excavation of dead bodies literally resurrecting issues and debates. All the spaces occupied by the dead have become platforms for the state to marshal certain narratives. Narratives of the country's past, the liberation struggle, patriotism, citizenship and access to economic resources for the black majority through indigenisation of the land and the economy.

The dead become part of the act in the stage of political performance with cemeteries as shrines and grand arenas. This is very clear for example in the burial of a hero in Zimbabwe. The process is a spectacle, an act, a grand performance. The preliminaries to burial at the national shrine includes a scrutiny by the Politburo.-A ZANU Pf supreme organ for whether one deserves to be a hero/heroine or not. This is a highly contested issue with opposition parties calling for a less partisan selection criteria, as they see the shrine as a preserve only of ZANU PF politicians. The actual burial starts with the dead hero/ine 'lying in state'. They spend a night at their home a day before burial. On the day of the burial they are taken from their home to Stodart Hall in Mbare (the oldest African township). Stodart hall, is a historic building used to host meetings of the nationalists. Then the casket in carried in an open military carriage, escorted by military details to the cemetery. The route from Mbare to the National Heroes would is about 15 km and passes through numerous low income suburbs. On reaching the Heroes acres, the body is displayed in full national colours on an elevated granite pedestal near the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The highlights of the burial include the Presidents' speech, the 21 Gun Salute and laying of wreaths at the tomb. The state burials are well known for being the events where Mugabe lashes out at the west, the opposition and anyone who opposes the Ruling party as betraying the ideals and sacrifices made by the dead heroes. (I will make this a subject for another day). In the recent funerals mourners are bussed from the various provinces and they come wielding placards denouncing the West, Sanctions and opposition parties.

Criticising the lack of use of forensic anthropologists in indiscriminate hauling of bodies from Chibondo mine one commentator, remarked 'What is happening is a travesty. Bones speak quietly ...... Let's not silence them forever but bring them the help they need to be heard'. (The Financial Gazette 14-20 April 2011).

To avoid the grave of Osama Bin Laden being turned into a shrine, Americans buried his remains secretly in the sea....... and today the world clamours, in the absence of his dead body, for at least pictures of Osama Bin Laden's dead body..... A body of evidence.

Jesmael Mataga Is a PhD Fellow in the University of Cape Town Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative.