Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, ‘Politics, Intellectuals and the Media

This week SW Radio Africa journalist Lance Guma speaks to Blessing-Miles Tendi, author of the book, Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, ‘Politics, Intellectuals and the Media.’

Tendi argues that ZANU PF have over the years used a concept known as ‘Patriotic History’ in which the political battle is always between ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors’. Lance asks him why ZANU PF has had to resort to violence, if this strategy was or is working.

Interview broadcast 15 November 2010

Lance Guma: Hello Zimbabwe and welcome to Behind the Headlines. My guest this week is Blessing Miles Tendi the author of the book Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe – Politics, Intellectuals and the Media. Mr Tendi thank you for joining us.

Blessing-Miles Tendi: Thank you for having me.

Guma: I take it your book is part of the series Nationalisms Across the Globe – starting point – can you summarise your book and what exactly you are exploring?

Tendi: What the book tries to set out is this, I think I would start off by saying there’s been a glut so to speak of books on Zimbabwe but a lot of these books have tended to explore the Zimbabwe crisis since 2000 as simply a struggle against dictatorship but where this book is different, where it comes in, what it has to say is that the crisis in Zimbabwe is not simply a struggle against dictatorship.

In fact it is also a very important struggle over ideas and deep-seated historical issues. I go back to 1980 when Zimbabwe achieved independence and these issues and ideas, there’s been a struggle over them between Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC. They’re struggling to define these issues and ideas, and starting to address these historical issues and ideas.

Guma: Isn’t the problem though Blessing, the fact that any dictatorship in the world will always find an excuse to try and legitimise their hold on power so are you not falling into the trap of intellectualising what is obvious?

Tendi: Hardly. I would not say that at all. It does happen that across the globe a dictatorship has sought to legitimise their hold on power. I think the notion of using ideas, history and the sort of ideas about history, patriotism, race, land, human rights, sovereignty as has happened in Zimbabwe is quite peculiar in African politics. Normally when you try to understand African politics it’s about issues such as ethnicity, kinship, that sort of thing. The study of ideas in African politics is rare. I think Zimbabwe provides a very rare interesting case in point for that and that’s what the book tries to explore.

Guma: I suppose though there’s nothing wrong in a battle of ideas but as June 2008 showed in Zimbabwe, when people are killed for voting for a political party, it ceases to be a battle of ideas does it not?

Tendi: It may seem that way on the surface and this is what the book is trying to get at. In fact you have this violence that’s there say in 2008 right, or going back to 2000 but in tandem with this violence, side by side with the violence is the work of ideas.

For instance I’ll give you one example – one theme the book explores is ideas of patriotism, how ZANU PF has sought to divide Zimbabwe between patriots and sell-outs. What ZANU PF regards as patriots are those who support ZANU PF (and) are presented as patriots. Those who are opposed to ZANU PF are presented as sell-outs – the MDC.

But if you trace the idea of this distinction between patriots and sell-outs, you trace it back to history, the idea of sell-outs, when you construct an individual or a group, a political party as sell-outs, has always been used to de-legitimise the right of that particular entity to exist.

For example in the liberation war period, to be called a sell-out was a virtual death sentence right? In post-independence period ZAPU in the early ‘80s was constructed as a sell-out party – what happened to them? The Gukurahundi. Post-2000 the MDC is a sell-out party – what has happened to them? Violence against the MDC. So you get these ideas of being a patriot, being a sell-out linked closely with uses of violence.

Guma: But it seems the dominant theme there is the fact that the moment you resort to violence you are admitting that your idea on its own is not enough to win people over and hence the need to use violence.

Tendi: There is, in a sense that is true, I will accept that point but I ask you to consider the point I was making before that the two work together.
For the violence to work, to be able to go out and beat up MDC supporters, they have to be constructed as sell-outs first and foremost. They are not Zimbabwean, they are funded by the British, they’re out to usurp our sovereignty so we have a right to beat them up.

So the ideas have to be there, these constructions have to be there for the violence then to become operationalised so the two go together, they closely rely and that’s something that’s been missed. Often the analysis looks at the violence, the dictatorship, the bruteness – yes that is all true, it’s important…

Guma: But you could get away with any idea Blessing, you could get away with any idea no matter how weak as long as you beat up people because at the end of the day it is fear that carries the day so your ideas don’t necessarily have to be well-constructed, they could be false and you would still get away with it.

Tendi: I would not, yes violence, fear has its uses, it has ways that immobilises support but I want to push you back to the notion of ideas and this time I want to move away a bit from its link to violence per se.

Guma: OK let’s go to some of the issues that you touch on. You refer to land dispossession as the primary theme in this concept of patriotic history that you are exploring and how this became a central grievance. Now the question for many people of course is why did it take almost 20 years for Mugabe and ZANU PF to make land an issue seeing this coincided with their political fortunes taking a dive?

Tendi: Right, before I answer that I just go back to the discussion we had at the beginning. I mentioned land is an important theme in patriotic history, the way land is used, land was a real grievance in the Zimbabwe liberation struggle, right?

So there’s violence around the land seizures, we’ve witnessed that and that’s deplorable, that deserves to be condemned but still along with that violence was this real idea, this real history that there was real land imbalance between blacks and whites, right? So you have the violence coercing people but you have the real grievance, ideas about a real, a very real history that convinced many people.

But now to answer your question – I think why it took long to address the land grievance I think first you have to go to the Lancaster House Settlement and the first ten years the government could not take over land on a compulsory basis so they sort of had their hands tied at that period but even then, this must be said, in the first ten years of independence, even under this arrangement, significant land reform occurred in that period.

In that first ten years we saw the largest ever land redistribution exercise of its type in Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the reforms, the land reforms that went ahead in the first ten years of independence were actually given a seal of approval by the British government. This was done well but things change of course after 1990.

I think 1990 and the book traces this as well, how the land grievance develops, how it was addressed. Throughout the 1990s ZANU PF went through periods where land ceased to be a priority and for example I’ll cite the DRC conflict. More money was spent on waging the DRC war than was spent on land reform in the 1990s period, that’s an example of how land having lost priority.

But then there are other themes, for instance this is something ZANU PF doesn’t like to discuss because in ZANU PF’s construction, the way ZANU PF has used ideas, about history, about land, the history of land in Zimbabwe, ZANU PF has always argued that the reason why it took them to address, the reason why it took them long to address the land reform issue was because Britain withheld funding, right?

It was the British government that withheld funding and this is why land reform did not speed up but an interesting thing the book shows is that from 1990 until after the apartheid transition ZANU PF at the request of the Commonwealth secretary general Emeka Anyaoku agreed to delay land reform until the South African apartheid transition was over.

Why? Because if land reform had occurred in 1990 at the time when the Lancaster House clause that I spoke of earlier had lapsed, you’d have a significant white flight. Image the white flight in post-2000, that occurred in post-2000 happened in 1990, this would have made white South Africans resist a change, resist a …

Guma: But the problem is the first legitimate land invasions were not even done by the party (ZANU PF), it was villagers in Svosve and you had the same government that is now claiming to be advancing the land reform agenda actually sending the police to remove those villagers so the question remains for a lot of people why this became a convenient agenda when the regime had lost support?

Tendi: Again, I’ll take it you mentioned how they sent the police to remove the land invaders. In the 1980s as well I remember in 1980 this is when land invaders were called squatters and they would send the police and the army to take these people off the farms but today, when you look at the way ZANU PF presents that whole history, that’s not mentioned at all anymore, it’s kind of like forgotten.

I have to agree with you there, it is forgotten now and it’s one thing the book is talking about how ideas, history, histories of land are being reinterpreted all the time and its that what I call patriotic history. But obviously the reason why, key reason why ZANU PF’s view, why it begins to endorse the land seizures in 2000 was of course the rise of the MDC.

The loss in the referendum in February (2000) alerted ZANU PF to the fact that – hey a significant opposition has finally come forth – and the land seizures were endorsed, were used as part of an election campaign that sought to defeat the MDC. One by using ideas of real grievance about land and two, the violence – they work together – ideas and violence.

Guma: Now you do talk about a theme where there’s a dichotomy between sell-outs and patriots and that Zimbabwe’s history has essentially been broken into a series of conflicts between the patriots and traitors. You do talk about the MDC’s selection of allies and how this has affected it’s ideological coherence – let’s talk a bit more about that – what’s your argument there?

Tendi: Well my argument with regard to MDC – one, they did not take history very seriously; unlike ZANU PF they didn’t take the battle of ideas, the uses of ideas very seriously and for those reasons they got caught out so to speak.

Number one for instance – choice of allies – it was clear from early 2000 that countries such as Britain had a clear favour for the MDC over ZANU PF and then when something like that happens in the context of ZANU PF’s uses of history when it was constructing the MDC as a sell-out party, one bent on working as an agent for the re-colonisation of Zimbabwe that was detrimental to the MDC’s standing.

Many Southern African leaders and African leaders more widely were very suspicious of the MDC for a long time because of the choice of those kind of allies.

Guma: But isn’t the problem the fact that some of the African countries have leaders who are essentially behaving the same as Mugabe himself. You are talking about getting allies like Obiang (Equatorial Guinea), King Mswathi (Swaziland), they don’t necessarily run thriving democracies themselves so wasn’t that, the MDC’s choosing of allies really merely by default in terms of gravitating towards countries that respect democratic ideals?

Tendi: I don’t think so. I have to beg to differ. While there are a significant number of African leaders whom that you cite, King Mswathi for example or Obiang, undemocratic, rights violators you have to look critically as well at the MDC’s choice of allies.

At the time MDC was choosing its choice of allies was early 2000, this is when the momentum towards the Iraq war is being built up for example, that was an illegal invasion. There were serious rights violations and continue to be in Iraq, the tortures in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib (Iraq) by the MDC’s choice of those allies so this again proved detrimental to the party.

Guma: I have a direct question for you. You have carefully of course in your book constructed how ZANU PF, or in a sense de-constructed how ZANU PF are pushing this agenda of patriotic history, branding the MDC as sell-outs while they are the patriots but the question people would want to know is – March 2008, ZANU PF had the police, the army, the CIO, the state controlled media on their side, registrar general, voters’ roll that was in shambles but they still lost the elections to the MDC led by Tsvangirai and with that whole sell-out package that you are talking about. How do you explain that? How is it that Zimbabweans continue to vote for these so-called sell-outs?

Tendi: Right, I have two things that I have to explain to you around that. Number one – the period that you speak of, 2008, we had the lowest voter turn-out ever, in terms of apathy the highest ever and I think to a significant degree that had much to do with the result.

We had in 2008 divisions within ZANU PF – they were not able to mobilise the electoral base in the same way that they have in the past and then the second point I want to say is the fact that while patriotic history was effective and in the book I argued that it was effective in the period 2000 onwards, by 2008 economic conditions were so dire to the extent that patriotic history which is a form of propaganda if you will, its effect had been diminished by the extent of the economic decline of the time.

This explains why people if you want to call, well you call them the puppet, the puppet, the sell-out party so to speak, I won’t go into that language but why people voted for the MDC. This is what I’m saying, there is a limit to which this propaganda works.

Guma: isn’t the problem the fact that the limitations of this patriotic history kind of concept, the main limitation is that people will say as we say in Shona ‘matakadya kare- we don’t eat history. People want to see what you are able to provide in terms of their future, how are they going to put food on the table and if you are constantly harping on about history and what you accomplished in the past, there’s a limitation to that?

Tendi: Indeed, there is a limitation to that and again by saying, the point I made earlier about why patriotic history was extremely effective in the beginning, you have to learn for example around the land seizures how history was used, it was made out that the liberation struggle had been about land only but while they were doing that in practise there was land seizures going on and land reform did occur. People were getting land.

Guma: But that’s not ordinary people. If you are giving land to senior officials, journalists, those in the CIO, army – could you call that a genuine land reform exercise?

Tendi: It wasn’t a genuine land reform exercise in that sense, that many, many ZANU PF elite and those related benefited from land reform but there was still significant redistribution of land to ordinary peasants and I think there’s a book that’s just come out by Ian Scoones, it profiles the Masvingo Province, the land redistribution exercise that went on there and actually shows that contrary to perceptions in the media and the more popular ones actually there’s a good degree of success in the land reform programme that has gone on in Masvingo.

So it’s, you use the propaganda yes, but you have to have some kind of material benefit that you must be seen to be giving out and this is something that ZANU PF did effectively at the time because they could parcel out land.

Guma: OK we’re running out of time Miles but just quickly, how do people get your book – Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe?

Tendi: They can go to www.peterlang.com or www.makinghistoryinmugabeszimbabwe.com they can order a copy from there.

Guma: That’s Blessing Miles Tendi the author of the book Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Well Miles, your book covers a lot of things and we hope over the weeks to have you again on the show to pick on different subjects from your book.

Tendi: Sure, any time.

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