The only time I saw Eddison Zvobgo in the flesh I was on my way to Rezende Bus Terminus to catch a bus home on a busy Friday afternoon in 1992. His black ministerial Mercedes Benz was parked near Kingston Bookshop along Kwame Nkrumah Avenue. The late Masvingo Zanu-PF kingpin looked dapper and sharp and larger than life as he puffed on a cigarette by the pavement.
I was surprised to see him appear cool and calm and collected in a public spot. Cabinet ministers breathed rarefied air back then and lived aloof from the very people whose lives depended on their actions and decisions. However I had heard that Minister Zvobgo loved to meet and talk with commoners at Chevron Hotel in Masvingo. So I had one million questions for him that day. And yet for all my juvenile ambition I was awed by his presence and mindful of two mean-looking bodyguards near him – so much so – I hesitated and walked on when presented with half a chance to pick his famed intellectual brains.
But that was the real problem. I had buckled under the strain of built-up anxiety and fear and remained crushed and dwarfed by the bizarrely false independence-era belief that you cannot hobnob with Cabinet ministers and ask them difficult questions about critical national matters. I simply wanted to know why Minister Zvobgo had crafted the executive presidency.
But even before that constitutional disaster came along Zimbabwe had been a very fearsome and inhibitory society. I remember how I often spent holidays at Kamativi Tin Mine in Matabeleland North. My aunt Resca worked as a nurse at the mine hospital and enjoyed inviting family members over. I had wonderful friends in Kamativi. Like Munyaradzi: his mother hailed from Mashonaland while his father was Ndebele. Munyaradzi and I really had fun. We would play at the mine compound and shops and wander around aimlessly each and every day.
Whenever Munyaradzi was not around I used to get around the mine on my own speaking a combination of English and Shona without a problem at all. I really loved the place. I really loved the people. And I really loved the journey from Harare to Kamativi – especially when I took the train to Bulawayo along with my elder niece – since I enjoyed drinking coffee and eating snacks on the train. Uncharacteristically I also loved the bus ride from Bulawayo to Kamativi and treasured passing through places like Lupane district.
It was all so lovely and normal and tranquil and the mine itself was a beautiful labour of construction. My aunt Resca had a nice little company house which was located on a small hill near the shops. She stayed in Kamativi for so long my youngest niece learnt to speak fluent Ndebele. Later she would marry a Ndebele man and open up a whole new world for us all and our Ndebele in-laws.
I have nonetheless never been able to view my brother-in-law through ethnic eyes. I have never been to label my friends using regional locations. I have never put any credence to where they were born and the languages they speak. I have also learnt to avoid the discriminatory friends I had in the past and maintain very few fair-minded acquaintances.
Because while I was young and enjoying my childhood in Kamativi – Gukurahundi was well underway in parts of Matabeleland. All the while nobody ever treated me badly in Kamativi. Nobody threatened me. Nobody hurt me. Nobody made me feel unwelcome. I was treated like any other child and never felt unloved and unwanted wherever I went. I would not have spent so many holidays there were that not the case. So how was I to know about cruel civilian deaths elsewhere when there was a total media blackout on the deadly matter?
But when I was older and knew better and the Internet came alive I downloaded a report on the Catholic Church investigation into Gukurahundi. It is such a graphic and horrific report of the brutal terror that the Perence Shiri-led Fifth Brigade carried out reading it sends shivers up and down one’s spine. Tribal-based animosity and conflict did not, however, end when the horrendous hostilities ceased and the Unity Accord was signed in 1987. In the aftermath of the low-level war, many Shona racists have found fertile grounds to continually sow the seeds of tribalism in Zimbabwe.
I have heard a lot of inane fallacies about how and why Gukurahundi happened. I have heard seemingly normal and rational people routinely infer that the Ndebele people caused Gukurahundi and deserved to suffer and die for it. I have heard incredibly reckless statements about how Ndebele people pretend not to speak Shona. Yet I have so many excellent friends who happen to be Ndebele and have never expected them to speak Shona. They are my friends and not language experts and I do not speak Ndebele anyway. Maybe if I had learnt Ndebele alongside Shona at school I would speak several languages now.
I do not tolerate prejudice in any context and consciously avoid people who are racial bigots. I appreciate all manner of people and work hard to maintain a healthy mind and transparent approach towards cultural diversity. I have in-laws who are Zulu and that too has been a wonderful experience.
So I would have loved to know what the Harvard-trained Zvobgo thought about Gukurahundi. Did he have a legal opinion and personal position on the awful tragedy? Did he believe that military officials should face prosecution for the tragedy? Did he believe in the establishment of a truth and reconciliation and compensation process for the victims of Gukurahundi and their loved ones? I feel for the people who lost family and friends in utterly inhumane circumstances. Zimbabwe must reach out and let them know that all broadminded humanitarians feel their pain still.
This is why Zimbabwe should offer an unreserved and wholehearted apology to the affected families and Matabeleland regions. I hope that the unreasonable fear that flourishes in social and political spaces will perish forever. I also hope that contemporary divisions between regular people and wealthy elected representatives will somehow be substituted with confidence-building actions and accountability and profound prosperity for all. I truthfully hope for an equal society where nobody from Matabeleland feels foreign and left out because of historic injustices and social and economic discrimination.
I cannot remember when I made my final journey to Kamativi. But I remember the warmth and sunshine that overwhelmed the small mining town like I was there yesterday. Low tin prices led to the closure of the mine in 1994. Yet the humble and wonderful people in Kamativi had opened my world to the abundant richness of common humanity. Zimbabwe must have a million melting pots like Kamativi. Places where real unity rises above politics and public posturing. Places where people relish a multicultural society and care for each other without callous expectation of mainstream recognition or a round of public applause. Places that you and I will always feel happy and proud to call home.
Tafi Mhaka is a Johannesburg-based commentator. His debut novel, ‘Mutserendende, The African in Us’, will be published in 2020.