Lessons from Cde Muchemwa

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By Dr Rino Zhuwarara

WHEN I heard about the death of Retired Brigadier-General Felix Muchemwa, I was in Ethiopia, attending a roundtable conference on the state of African cinema.
I tried as much as possible to focus on the business at hand, but the fact that I knew him personally and had worked with him for more than a year made it difficult to concentrate.
I recalled those numerous moments which I had shared with him, and those moments when I, together with the late Cde Alexander Kanengoni and Mashingaidze Gomo, would troop to his office and subsequently spend hours, discussing the contents of his book titled Struggle for Land in Zimbabwe (1890-2010).
Much has already been said about him; the fact that he was a medical practitioner who opted to assist those prosecuting the armed struggle and those sons and daughters of the soil who, because of the liberation war, became refugees hosted in several dozens of camps located in Mozambique.
Much has been written about the fact that years later, when the guns went silent, he became a minister, later on, an advisor in the President’s Office.
In addition he decided to double up as a historian of the same armed struggle which he, together with others, had fought and won hands down.
However, not much has been said so far about why he became the ‘chronicler in chief’ of the colonial theft of our land and struggle for liberation which followed.
One of the key reasons which compelled the late Cde Muchemwa to go into writing is the way Britain and the US in particular, and the West in general, reacted to Zimbabwe’s Land Reform Programme which commenced in the year 2000.
During one of his few visits to the US, Cde Muchemwa followed with keen interest the debate that was going on in the US Congress on Zimbabwe.
It soon dawned on Cde Muchemwa that most of the contributions made by many Congress representatives were based on outright ignorance about the history of Zimbabwe; worse, that quite a lot of them had no idea where the Zimbabwe they were talking about was located.
What seemed to inflame the temper of most of these representatives is the fact that a tiny country located somewhere in Africa could dare to dispossess white settlers of their land. It did not matter that most of these settlers were in fact of British origin and not Americans at all.
Of more significance to these representatives was the white-black conflict over land in Zimbabwe, not justice, not fairness or equity in the way land was distributed in the country.
In any case, most of these representatives were too impatient to worry about such things as taking into account the history of Zimbabwe.
They were too powerful for that sort of thing.
And we all know that the powerful can afford to be ignorant and still manage to get all they want in any given situation.
According to the late Cde Muchemwa, only one black representative seemed to be aware of the issues involved and why blacks in Zimbabwe were unlikely to back down over land ownership!
Cynthia Mckinney stood up and asked a number of questions such as: How did these white settlers come to own such large tracts of land?
Where did these settlers come from?
Why do these settlers refuse to share land with the majority who happen to be blacks?
She concluded by stating:
“To any honest observer, Zimbabwe’s sin is that it has taken the position to right a wrong, whose resolution has been too long overdue…to return land to its people…When we get right down to it, this legislation (ZIDERA) is nothing more than a formal declaration of the United States’ complicity in a programme to maintain white-skin privilege…It is racist and against the interests of the masses of Zimbabweans.”
Upon his return to Zimbabwe, Cde Muchemwa tried, as soon as he could, to locate appropriate historical texts which could shed more light on how blacks were deprived of their land.
In particular he was looking for detailed accounts explaining who got which land and how much and in which region of the country?
He also expected the same narrative to identify the African chiefs and kings and all those of their people who lost their land and what became of those who suffered that kind of loss!
Why look for such detailed information, one may ask?
For Cde Muchemwa, it was critical to support the likes of Mckinney by providing the facts and figures which they could use in their arguments in support of Zimbabwe’s Land Reform Programme.
Being a man of medical practice, more inclined to analyse situations on the basis of facts and figures, it is not surprising that his history text is full of such figures as they pertain to land which the British settlers swindled from Africans.
His first port of call was the much talked about Revolt in Southern Rhodesia by Terence Ranger.
To his surprise, the more he re-read it, the more he realised that it indirectly and only occasionally at that, touched on what he was looking for and in a very generalised and therefore, unhelpful manner.
In brief, it was not fit for purpose.
What followed were the numerous days, weeks, months and years during which he almost relocated himself to the National Archives, always burrowing into ancient-looking documents, some scholarly, some mere reports written for the British South Africa Company (BSAC) during the 1890s.
He also came across many books, articles and reviews, most of them written by white authors who, because of their cultural background and limited appreciation of anything related to blacks, were not really interested in following up on the fate of all those blacks whom colonisation had displaced.
Cde Muchemwa’s next port-of-call were those historical texts written by black scholars themselves, especially after 1980.
To his dismay only a few of them had written anything about land and how our ancestors had lost it to white settlers.
Much as the likes of Professor N. Bhebe and Bhila had written some books, helpful in one way or other as they were, all these turned out to be not that suitable for purposes of defending the Land Reform Programme.
His agitation grew as he also realised, slowly at first, that most of our university intellectuals were more inclined to keep their heads under the parapet rather than come out in the open defending the Land Reform Programme.
Why?
Because most of our researchers and scholars in Zimbabwe depend on financial support from the West in order to carry out most of their research work.
Cde Muchemwa often confessed how shocked he was when he came to realise the success story about education in Zimbabwe was exactly that, a story, nothing more.
That education could not produce revolutionary scholars, original and courageous ones, because it was an education defined by the West and underpinned financially by the same West.
Reluctantly, but irreversibly, he came to the painful conclusion that he had no other choice, but to write down the kind of narrative that he had been looking for himself.
And more painful is the fact that he had no choice, but to rely, largely for reference purposes, on those war texts written by some of those he had literally fought against during the liberation war.

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