Unresolved disappearances, economic misery haunt Zimbabwe at 42

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – A marching brass band, a troupe of skydivers and colourful mass displays set a celebratory tone for President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s independence address to the people of Zimbabwe.

For the first time since independence in 1980, the celebrations were held outside the capital, Harare, in a bid to be inclusive. But Monday’s venue was in an area where a bloodied past stalks the dry landscape and dilapidated industries are the remnants of a once-thriving industrial hub.

Under the theme, “no one and no place shall be left behind,” Zimbabwe marked 42 years of liberation from colonial rule, but for some sovereignty is overshadowed by more than four decades of political strife and economic hardship.

Memories of these linger on in Silobela – a rural district in the nearby Midlands province – only 180km (112 miles) away from the fanfare at Barbourfields Stadium in the second southern city of Bulawayo.

A forbidden memory

A pile of brick rubble, chipped cement and a missing plaque reminded Lizwe Mnkandla, now 45, of the disappearance of his grandfather on the night of 31 January 1985. Mbulali Mnkandla was 76 the night he disappeared from his home, accused of being part of armed dissidents trying to overthrow the newly independent state then led by the late Robert Mugabe.

The younger Mnkandla, said his grandfather, a rural farmer, was “just an ordinary man,” but he and 11 other men were rounded up and taken to a secret military base. Their fate remains unknown.

The Silobela 12, as they are known, were one group among thousands of civilians abducted and disappeared between 1983 and 1987 in a killing spree targeting the Ndebele minority group in the southern Matabeleland and central Midlands provinces.

“It’s still painful to remember what happened, and what hurts even more is that we are not allowed to remember,” he told Al Jazeera. “They can remember their heroes, but we need to know what happened to our relative and we need to talk about it openly if we are expected to be a united and free country.”

Thirty-seven years after the disappearance of Clement Baleni, another of the Silobela 12, his daughter, Patricia – now 52, still mourned his disappearance. Baleni’s family did not receive any state benefits after his forced disappearance even though he was a head teacher at a state-run school. His daughter hoped he can be found to help the family find closure.

“I grew up hoping my father would return home one day and I still hope he will be found wherever he is because this has caused us so much pain,” Patricia said.

To commemorate the Silobela 12, who were believed to have been killed by a special military brigade, a local activist group, Ibetshu Likazulu, erected a commemorative plaque last year on August 30 – the International Day of Enforced Disappearances.

A day later, the granite tablet was stolen, its casing destroyed and the flower bouquets crushed. A few months before, the same thing happened: A plaque was constructed and then stolen by unknown vandals in Silobela.

At Bhalagwe, a site in rural Kezi, 97km (60 miles) southwest of Bulawayo, where hundreds of bodies are thought to have been dumped in a mine shaft, the similar vandalism took place on three occasions. Explosive materials were allegedly used to destroy the third memorial plaque constructed in January.

The identity of the culprits remains elusive, but Mbuso Fuzwayo, the secretary-general of Ibhetshu Likazulu, suspects the repeated destruction may be linked to state agents.

“This has been done by those who are trying to erase memory,” he said. “It’s people working on behalf of the government because they don’t want to take responsibility for what happened.

“Mnangagwa has never condemned the destruction of the plaques, so it’s a sign from him that this is acceptable,” he said.

Police Spokesperson Paul Nyathi declined to comment but said a formal report of vandalism was yet to be filed.

A struggle for justice

Up to 20,000 people are estimated to have died during the crackdown. The late Mugabe described the bloodletting, known locally as “Gukurahundi”, or “a moment of madness”.

Mnangagwa who was in charge of state security during Gukurahundi, has acknowledged the atrocities by appointing commissioners to the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) to deal with past violations.

However, his efforts have often been criticised. As the man in charge of intelligence and security services during Gukurahundi, he has been viewed as responsible.

“We need a victim-centred approach and not one led by the perpetrator,” said Fuzwayo. “This regime is part of what happened and they need to acknowledge all forms of state violence perpetrated since 1980 to the present day.”

Warning against the risk of the process being discredited, Siphosami Malunga, executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, said the president is “neither neutral nor objective” in light of his implicated role in the atrocities.

The NPRC is also widely seen as a weak organisation because its commissioners are appointed by the president and it has no prosecuting powers.

Alternatively, chiefs, as custodians of community welfare, have convened several dialogues with the president, but the talks largely depend on Mnangagwa’s engagement.

The chiefs are an interlocutor between the people and power, but lack the authority to order exhumations where bodies are suspected to be buried and cannot lead re-burials on their own.

Malunga, who has called for an international body to oversee the reconciliation and healing process, told Al Jazeera that traditional leaders do not have the legal authority to seek justice for what he terms a “genocide”.

“An exhumation, reburial or birth certificate is not the appropriate remedy for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes,” he said. “It is possible for the healing process to occur but it must be based on honest acknowledgement.”

Alex Magaisa, a political analyst and law lecturer at the University of Kent said it was important for the government to address the issue with sensitivity and urgency to avoid fanning division.

“There are victims and survivors of these atrocities and they must receive justice and compensation,” he said in a telephone interview. “The government must put mechanisms in place to ensure that this is done properly otherwise people will continue to speak out in anger. Finally, the issue of marginalisation [in Matabeleland province] needs to be addressed.”

The elusive hope for prosperity

Despite the criticism, Mnangagwa has continued to push forward with calls for unity, rebuking political division and difference.

“As we celebrate 42 years of our country’s independence, let us never allow divisive tendencies, greed and the pursuit of unpatriotic self-centred political gains, weaken our bond of unity, peace, love and harmony,” he said.

He has urged Zimbabweans to focus on building a prosperous nation in order to become an upper-middle-class country by 2030.

In his speech, Mnangagwa said the economy grew by 7.4 percent in 2021, contrary to World Bank estimates of 5.8 percent for the same period.

A spiralling years-long economic crisis was aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, causing the local currency to rapidly devalue, leading many people to seek economic opportunities outside of the country.

Outside the arena where Mnangagwa delivered the speech, riot police with barking dogs on leashes and officers on horseback pushed back a throng of people clamouring to get into Barbourfields to watch the independence football match.

The standoff between the people and the police is a familiar scene at this stadium, but today, the multitudes hope for a glimpse of their favourite players to briefly forget the political tensions of the past and the festering economic problems of the present.

As the country heads to the ballot in 2023, the prevailing conditions will weigh heavily on voters’ choices between the incumbent party, ZANU-PF, and the leading opposition, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC).

In March, the CCC won 19 of the 28 available parliamentary seats in by-elections. It has pledged a change in economic fortunes for the citizenry, and for relatives of victims of political violence, the freedom to mourn.

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