Defining the Zimbabwean war: The Second Chimurenga


This article is part of a scholarly paper written by Professor Charles Pfukwa.

The Patriot will next week publish the other part. CHIMURENGA is a Shona word that reflects the passion and intensity of feeling towards the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe. The term carries a long history that spans over 500 years and it motivated the nationalists and guerrillas (Lan 1985, Bhebe 1999, Bhebe and Ranger 1995). Giving the conflict their own name was in itself an act of reclaiming a past that had been erased by some 90 years of colonial rule. Naming it Chimurenga was an act of reasserting control over ideological space that had been taken by the settlers in the First Chimurenga. The name Chimurenga developed from the name Murenga Soro Renzou, a Zimbabwean chief of the Munhumutapa Dynasty. The name Murenga is opaque and Soro Renzou means the head of an elephant (Vambe 2004: Beach 1984). Probably Murenga had a head that was big hence it metaphorically resembled that of an elephant. The name Chimurenga was given to the first wars of resistance to British rule in 1893/1896. The Zimbabwean liberation war which raged from 1966 to 1979 was named after these first wars of resistance. Hence the name Chimurenga pegs the conflict in some definite historical space that suggests continuation of a struggle that was started some 70 years earlier by another generation of Zimbabweans. This historical perspective justified and legitimised the 1966-1979 conflict as an effort to complete a task that was left unfinished in 1896. Most historians (e.g. Bhebe and Ranger 1995; Simbanegavi 2000; Bhebe 1999; Manungo 1991; Kriger 1992) explore this historical continuity. Giving the conflict the name Chimurenga became an effort to define the armed conflict in a Zimbabwean context that acknowledged a past that was deliberately erased and undermined by the colonial power. It was an effort to establish an identity that has historical roots and justified the conflict of 1966- 1979 by closely relating to the past struggles against foreign rule. The next term still sees the conflict in the above frame but with a more global perspective. Liberation Struggle was used as an alternative to Chimurenga and in many ways the former echoes most of the ideals enshrined in the latter term. It suggests some sympathies with the guerrillas and the Zimbabwean peasant population that was an important force behind Chimurenga. Like Chimurenga, the term liberation disputed the legitimacy of Rhodesian rule and the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). This was the term used when selling Chimurenga to international fora such as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the United Nations. Liberation also has Marxist overtones and it is widely used in Marxist and Socialist literature. Liberation suggests freedom hence it can be argued that the liberation war sought to free the people from colonial rule. Liberation seems to go beyond the narrow confines of national freedom into freedom for all nations under an imperial power. It also suggests liberation of the mind along the lines argued by Edward Said (1993). Liberation war is closely related to Guerrilla war, which is another term that was used to describe the Zimbabwean struggle. Echoes of liberty are also found in the Statue of Liberty and the French Revolution with its cry ‘Liberty, fraternity and equality.’ Guerrilla war was the term used by neutral observers or people who were not directly involved in the conflict. This term was widely popular with journalists and scholars who tried to remain neutral in the armed conflict. But such writers were treated with suspicion by the opposing camps and were often persecuted for this neutrality. They were regarded with suspicion by the guerrillas and they were given little or no access to guerrilla camps. The Rhodesians also harassed this neutral group and preferred their own journalists to cover their operations. Alongside Guerrilla War is the term Bush War. The bush is a Southern African term and is also used widely in Australia. The Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary defines it as “ . . . an area of wild land that is not cultivated, especially in Africa and Australia”. It is related to bushveld, another Southern African word which according to Jenkins (1991:16) “. . . has also meant for some people simply any rural, wild place”. There is also the term bush telegraph when a message rapidly moves across the countryside through informal means and the content can be distorted. In this context a bush war can be seen as some irregular armed conflict waged by some unwelcome elements against a legitimate government. To quote Jenkins (1991:24 ) again: “Bushveld and its cognates have further derisory connotations associated with rusticity and backwardness and to some they also suggest offensive values of brutality, associated with the bushveld’s history of hunting and colonial exploitation.” These were convenient but one-sided images with reference to the word bush for a Rhodesian government that had to give moral justification for colonial rule (Chennels 1995). At the other extreme of the terms used to describe the war was Terrorist war. Terrorist War is the ultimate term at the other end of the list of epithets that were used to describe the Zimbabwean armed conflict. Crowther (1995) defines it as “use of violence for political aims. . .” It is in this framework that the Rhodesians and their sympathisers called the armed conflict in Zimbabwe the “Terrorist War”. This gave the impression that it was a senseless war without any moral values or clear political goals. Each of the epithets that describe the Zimbabwean conflict carries a package of meanings and ideas associated with it and the user selects it to infer specific meanings. The different names used by different social groups for themselves and when referring to others reflect the intensity and passion of the perennial struggle for physical, social and ideological space and the limited resources in these different spaces


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