The Heroes Acre is a landscaped monument and cemetery covering 57 acres just outside Harare, capital city of Zimbabwe. Built as a gift from North Korea to President Robert Mugabe in 1981, it is modeled after a similar memorial near Pyongyang. There is another North Korean-built Heroes Acre in Namibia. Ironically, the idea may have come from South Africa, whose Heroes Acre in Pretoria holds the graves of white leaders of that formerly segregated land.
At the top of a rise near Harare stands the monument, symbolizing two giant Kalashnikov rifles set back to back. The graves below are meant to represent the rifles’ magazines. At the center of the cemetery is the Statue of the Unknown Soldier, with three fierce soldiers, including a woman, who look like a cross between Zimbabweans and North Koreans, and who are armed to the teeth with rifles and a grenade launcher.
This burial ground nominally was meant for patriots and heroes of the resistance struggle by black nationalists against white imperialists in the years before Zimbabwe came into existence. At this writing, the list of “heroes” interred in the Heroes Acre has 76 names, with the addition of Shuvai Mahofa. While some prominent freedom-fighters are missing, among the honored heroes are Sally Mugabe, the dictator’s late wife; also his sister Sabina Mugabe, who distinguished herself mainly by confiscating white Zimbabwean farmers’ land, and who once incited a mob to kill a white farmer. I do recognize names of some black nationalist leaders from earlier years. In selecting “heroes” to be buried here, Mugabe may have had several motives, including ethnic payoffs, rewarding loyalty and fee-for-service. It must have been a fun job for Mugabe, since all the “heroes” were dead and couldn’t cause him any more trouble.
There may be stamps for all 76 heroes in Zimbabwe’s National Heroes series, which began more than a dozen years ago. There is a story to tell about each one. I will limit myself to just a few.
At first I didn’t connect the stamp and the story for Maurice Nyagumbo (1924-1989) — but there he is, a National Hero, his face on a stamp and his body buried in Heroes Acre. Not that he wasn’t as heroic as many other Zimbabwe patriots. It’s just that his death was so grisly — the story is he drank rat poison out of shame for betraying his public trust in a car-theft ring that implicated First Lady Sally Mugabe, among others.
There is much more to say about Maurice Nyagumbo. He pursued his education and was active in African nationalist groups in the 1940s and 1950s. Like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Nyagumbo was detained by authorities, in his case for the better part of two decades. In captivity he wrote a book, “With the People: An Autobiography from the Zimbabwe Struggle.” It was published after independence. He was elected to the House of Assembly, then was appointed to Mugabe’s cabinet. He resigned abruptly on April 13, 1989, after release of a report detailing his role in the criminal sale of vehicles by the Willowvale Motor Industries — the so-called Willowgate scandal.
Nyagumbo was a devoted ideologue. To him, it seemed, black nationalism was the way to the future, not mainly an avenue to self-enrichment. In his book, Nyagumbo tells how he nearly came to blows with colonial officials when he felt they did not show proper respect for Zimbabwe’s national aspirations. He also wasn’t afraid to tangle with his own cohort, including “intellectuals” who resisted the nationalist impulse. As late as 1959, he wrote, “there were still some so-called African intellectuals who espied the composition of the leadership of the ANC and condemned the party organizers who, they believed, knew nothing of the political reality of the country.”
This obviously was a guy who cared about politics! It’s tragic to think of him, the father of five daughters, ending his life in shame in his 60s — though it seems he was not immune to the Mugabe virus of self-dealing and self-enrichment. I suppose you could speculate that what really bothered Nyagumbo was that he got caught. You also could concoct a conspiracy where Nyagumbo was “assisted” with his self-destruction by Mugabe’s goons before he could rat on Sally. But plenty of others had their snouts in Mugabe’s trough and got away with it. Sally Mugabe, for one, suffered no such fate, dying of natural causes (just in time for her grieving husband to marry the even-more-venal young Grace, his mistress and at the time already mother of his child.)
I could give you the names of others cited in Willowgate, and detail the inconclusive court proceedings that resulted, but we have better things to do, don’t we? Besides, once you start fingering corruption in the Mugabe regime, the whole thing starts to unravel like a stinking shroud.
A medical doctor and founding member of ZANU, Herbert R. Ushewokunze (1933-1995) served in Mugabe’s first cabinet and was a strong supporter of the president, echoing and even overtaking his fellow nationalist in his radicalism, which he laced with rhetorical flourishes and references to Shakespeare. As health minister, he led the campaign to end race-based segregation in health facilities. He accused white doctors and nurses of racism, and pressed for traditional African forms of treatment. Within a year he fell out with Mugabe. He accused the Public Service Commission, which Mugabe used to control the civil service, of still favoring whites, which offended the president. Even worse, he called for an end to nepotism in the commission, which Mugabe was using to reward his loyal followers. So Ushewokunze was sacked without explanation, and spent his final years out of power. Today, Zimbabwe’s health system barely has a pulse. Perhaps Ushewokunze could have done better than his successors; he surely could have done no worse.
Now here is a model hero I’d like to admire. Leopold Takawira (1916-1970) did so well in primary schools in Southern Rhodesia that he went on to become headmaster of Chipembere Government School in Highfield. He was active in nationalist politics, and jostled with others for influence, primarily Joshua Nkomo. In the 1950s he joined the Capricorn Society, a multiracial organization based in England that promoted a racial partnership for Southern Rhodesia. By 1963, he had broken with Nkomo and Mugabe and allied himself with another promising leader, the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole. White authorities swooped in and detained Takawira on charges of whatever, and they never let him go. He remained in detention until he died in 1970 from complications of diabetes. Word is that the white authorities neglected his medical care, hastening his demise.
Here is a description of Takawira provided by Dr. Edson Sithole, who has compiled a who’s-who of pre-indendence nationalists in Zimbabwe:
“Leopold Takawira is recalled by his colleagues as having a most amiable disposition. They say that he had the common touch and always made himself accessible to all who wanted to consult him. …” One wonders wistfully: Was this a leader who could have moved Zimbabwe in a completely different direction?
By contrast, Nathan Makwirakuwa Shamuyarira (1928-2014) is an exemplar of the kind of rascal Mugabe kept in his inner circle. By the 1950s Shamuyarira had completed his education (with studies at Princeton) and become active in liberation politics, calling for black African self-governance. He showed lots of promise. He was a leader before independence in groups including the Capricorn Society, the group that in the 1950s envisioned an interracial partnership for Zimbabwe. After independence, he joined Mugabe’s cabinet and served as information minister and then foreign minister between 1980 and 1995.
Shamuyarira led a crackdown on the press, requiring monthly renewals of licenses for foreign reporters. Critics of the government and ZANU-PF were silenced, and the political opposition became all but invisible and mute.
When a rare voice of dissent arose, it was from Archbishop Pius Ncube, who apparently was protected by his clerical authority. But he was not safe from
Shamuyarira’s vitriol. In 2005, Ncube said: ”I hope people get so disillusioned that they really organize against this government and kick him out by non-violent popular mass uprising.” In response, Shamuyarira called the cleric a “mad, inveterate liar,” lapsing into Mubabe’s tropes about neocolonialist conspiracy. “He … fits into the scheme of the British and Americans, who are calling for regime change and are feeding him … wild ideas. Archbishop Ncube’s open call for an unconstitutional uprising shows he is an instrument of the West’s illegal regime change agenda.” Ncube resigned in 2007.
Shamuyarira openly praised the feared Gukurahundi (“sweeping away rubbish”)— thugs of the dreaded Five Brigade who killed thousands and spread violence and terror in the 1980s. The North Korea-trained killers operated in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces. The killings were “not regrettable,” Shamuyarira said in 2006, “as (the Five Brigade) was doing a job to protect the people. It was because the political dissidents were killing people that Gukurahundi went to correct the situation and protect the people.” His comments drew withering condemnation from Joshua Nkomo and others who were equally impotent, politically. Nkomo called Shamuyarira’s comments “arrogant and insulting,” adding: “Let it be made clear that we are all Zimbabweans and those who think they were more equal than others are digging graves with their own teeth.” Brave words, but not much more than empty, hot air. Shamuyarira finally retired at age 66, no doubt a very wealthy man after serving Mugabe for so many years. He lived on until 2014. At his death, aged 85, he was writing a biography of his mentor.
Herbert Wiltshire Tfumaindini Chitepo (1923-1975) had the makings of a national hero. He was the colony’s first black African lawyer. Unfortunately, he was assassinated when a bomb went off in his Volkswagen as he was sitting in his driveway in Lusaka.
Chitepo began his education at the mission school in Bonda, and after stints in Natal and Harare, went to London, where he received his law degree in 1954. Returning to Southern Rhodesia, he practiced law as the colony’s first black barrister. After 1957 he became increasingly active in the nationalist struggle. Though he had a reputation as an able attorney, he rejected overtures to join the colonial administration, and grew more militant after suffering repeated slights in daily life. Though the colonial regime stretched its rules to allow him to appear in court, one native commissioner required that he defend his clients while sitting cross-legged on the floor. He was insulted by whites in shops, restaurants and elevators, even as his black nationalist allies accused him of acting aloof and selling out. By the 1960s he had become a leader of the militants, and was an active plotter to subvert the white racist regime of Ian Smith. A power struggle among militant groups in 1974 presaged his assassination. Some blamed his killing on the Smith regime; more saw the assassins as part of a ZANU-PF clique that wanted to prevent his rise. Either way, one of the most talented and promising challengers to Mugabe was permanently removed from the scene, and could be honored later by the dictator as one more (dead) nationalist buried in Heroes’ Acre.
Grace Mugabe deserves at least a paragraph or two in this mostly uninspiring tale. Not because she is, or was, a Zimbabwe heroine. I don’t think she has been memorialized on a stamp, and she’s not ready for Heroes Acre. Rather she should be known for her audacity, her mendacity, her tenacity and her larceny. Robert Mugabe plucked her from his secretarial pool well before his wife Sally got sick and died. Grace was 42 years younger than her swain. (Cradle-snatching is nothing new in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Cabinet ministers Mudenge and Ushewokunze took young brides late in life, as did ZANU-PF bigs Chombo, Mutinhiri, Moyo and Gen. Chiwengo; provincial minister Cain Mathema dismissed his wife for a 20-year-old maid, then, aged 70, dumped her and married 23-year-old Bathabetsoe Nare.)
Grace’s official hagiography, lyricized in an anthem, portrays her as mother of the nation and ardent advocate of orphans. She won friends by giving away Ford Rangers and chickens — thousands and thousands of chickens. Though nominally a farmer — she added properties expropriated from white Zimbabwe farmers to her holdings — her interests grew, according to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, to include illegal diamond mining, as well as commercial and residential construction deals. When a diamond dealer refused to send a refund for her $1.35 million diamond ring to an account in Dubai — the dealer said it would look like money-laundering — she and her sons seized the dealer’s properties in Harare. When someone crossed her, watch out. Joice Mujuru, a ZANU-PF leader and decorated war hero, found out. Considered a potential political rival, she was expelled from the party. Grace accused her of witchcraft, treason and immodest dress.
Grace Mugabe picked the wrong rival, however, when she took on vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa. I have no idea how he did it, but Mnangagwa managed to outmaneuver the First Lady, and recently was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s second president since 1980. Subsequent reports placed Grace and Robert Mugabe in Singapore. They reportedly have as much as $1 billion in loot stashed in Switzerland and elsewhere.
It was touching to see the celebrations in the streets as soon as Mugabe was safely dispatched from power. There were more celebrations as Mnangagwa took over. Apparently Zimbabweans felt or hoped or wanted to believe that their new leader would right the faltering ship of state, enact reforms, end corruption and spread the blessings of prosperity to his people. They deserve such a leader. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been optimistic in Zimbabwe,” Harare street vendor Victor Chitiyo told a New York Times reporter.
The only problem with that rosy scenario is that Mnangagwa served at Mugabe’s side for many years (though Mugabe fired him in a late bid to retain power). Like his boss and mentor, the new president has started out saying the right words. How likely is he actually to abandon his role model’s predatory policies? Not very. Here’s a clue: Mnangagwa’s nickname as Mugabe’s lieutenant was the “crocodile.”
One more story: Like many other of his compatriots, Nolan Chipo Makombe (1933-1998) found his way out of his rural region of Masvingo through mission schools. He studied radio and TV technology in South Africa, then taught school, ran a radio shop, and worked for the colonial government as a radio mechanic. He grew active in nationalist politics, and was detained by the colonial rulers in Salisbury for extended periods. After independence he was elected to parliament, representing Masvingo province. He remained a leader in the legislature, eventually serving as speaker of the house. He died of a heart attack in 1998, and was buried in Heroes Acre.
I wish I had time to dig into this story. How did Nolan Makombe manage during those years of misrule by Mugabe? Was he on the take? Was he given a sinecure and told to lay off? Was he a Big Man in Masvingo province, one of the plunderers? How did he manage to keep getting elected to office for 25 years? What happened to those who dared to oppose his candidacy? Some day I hope to dive deeper, which may allow me to go toward the heart of what happened in Zimbabwe and how things went so horribly wrong in Africa.
Before I end this sorry history and dismal speculation, let me sound a clarion call from the past. It involves a white, English-born patrician named Arthur Guy Clutton-Brock. His story provides a poignant coda of what might have been in Zimbabwe. A Cambridge-educated social worker, Guy Clutton-Brock worked in prisons in England and post-war Germany before landing in Southern Rhodesia as a kind of peace corps missionary in 1949. He established St. Faith’s Mission as an interracial community and a model for Southern Rhodesia. He helped found Southern Rhodesia’s ANC, and was detained in 1959. After working in Bechuanaland and Nyasaland, he came back and joined a multi-racial group of collaborators to create Cold Comfort Farm, which drew wide praise for its emphasis on rural development and poverty reduction. Clutton-Brock did not see eye to eye with Ian Smith’s segregationist regime, and he was deported in 1971. Presumably he was welcomed back to Zimbabwe after independence — though one wonders how anyone with such a social conscience could have held still while Mugabe went his conniving, criminal way. After his death at age 88 in 1995, Clutton-Brock was declared a national hero, eligible for burial at Heroes Acre, in the shadow of the Heroes Monument and the Statue of the Unknown Soldier, gifts from North Korea.
END OF PART TWO