On Saturday 31 July Ariel Dorfman delivered the 8th annual Nelson Mandela Lecture at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.
Dorfman is a Chilean-American author and activist, who is widely acclaimed for his works on exile, history and memory.
On Sunday 1 August, at the funeral of his sister at Heroes Acre, President Robert Mugabe launched a diatribe against the West, telling the diplomatic community to “go to hell”.
Later in the week I listened to Jestina Mukoko speaking on “Nurturing a Culture of Human Rights” at the American Embassy in Harare. There is one important lesson we can learn from the contents of these three speeches.
In his lecture Dorfman drew parallels between the South African experience under apartheid and Chile’s experience under dictator General Augusto Pinochet.
He pointed out how both governments had been quick to use violence to stamp out any form of resistance. After they regained their freedoms, both countries were faced with the task of making democracy a reality for their peoples.
Similarly, Zimbabwe suffered from the tyranny of colonial rule and overcame it. At independence, it was a nation full of hope.
A wave of optimism washed over the people who had just attained their hard-won freedom, and this was underlined by the rhetoric of Zimbabwe’s leaders at the time.
I quote from a speech made by then Prime Minister Mugabe: “If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend and ally with the same national interest, loyalty, rights and duties as myself.
If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you. Is it not folly, therefore, that in these circumstances anybody should seek to revive the wounds and grievances of the past? The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten.” (www.kubatana.net)
While the positive aspirations of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation were no doubt a good thing, and highly commendable, the transition from enmity to friendship was made without further thought to the burdens of pain and humiliation that the majority of people were carrying and how the shedding of these burdens would be facilitated.
So we charged into our new nationality, full of hope and enthusiasm, and with every good intention of developing a culture of respecting human rights in a way that the previous rulers had not.
“Only a government that subjects itself to the rule of law has any moral right to demand of its citizens obedience to the rule of law”. – Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, March 4 1980.
Dorfman’s lecture, entitled “Whose Memory? Whose Justice? A Meditation on How and When and If to Reconcile” drew from his own experiences during times of unrest, oppression and reconciliation in Chile.
Similarly Mukoko spoke from her personal experience as a victim of human rights abuse in Zimbabwe.
Mukoko charges that while respect for human rights was not foreign to Zimbabwe at independence, it failed to develop into a culture in the long term.
She suggests that one reason for this may be the fact that we failed to demand accountability from past oppressors.
Dorfman spoke of how South Africa and Chile both needed “to wrestle with the dilemmas of how you confront the terrors of the past, without becoming a hostage to the hatred engendered by that past…”
This is a process that didn’t happen in the new Zimbabwe.
In the same way that our good intentions at independence rapidly deteriorated because we didn’t create a platform to confront our past, and reconcile it with the future we wanted to create, we will tomorrow face similar challenges if we don’t address the pain and anger we have carried since independence.
Responding to a question from the audience, Mukoko said that she believed in restorative justice rather than retribution, but added “There is no way you can get restorative justice until people have had the opportunity to tell the truth about what happened”. She believes truth-telling is an important contribution to national healing.
In his lecture Dorfman spoke about the truth and reconciliation commissions in both South Africa and Chile and said that, despite the many flaws of these commissions, “These inquiries create a version of history that the majority of citizens and especially their children can access.”
Dorfman explained how, in his plays, he “focuses on the divisions that separate people from those that have done them harm, and how it is difficult to confront your worst enemy while resisting retribution”.
He said that, despite this, we needed “to reach out, that it was only when we try to understand our enemies’ stories that we can start to reconcile and create moments of commonality.”
Zimbabwe skipped this important step at independence.
We carried the scars of our colonial pain without dressing and addressing the wounds to ensure proper healing.
There is a revelation in the president’s more recent words: “They detained us, jailed us, shot at us, bombed us, and slaughtered us in our hundreds. We bore the brunt of their cruelties and we shall never forget.” I am no psychologist, but I read his unresolved hurts in these words.
We are a nation full of unresolved hurts. And if we failed this generation by not facing our pain at independence, let’s not fail the next generation once again.
Let’s face the damages we ourselves have produced. Let’s face Gukurahundi. Let’s face Murambatsvina. Let’s face all pre- and post- election violence. Let’s not skip this important step again.
In Dorfman’s words, “A nation that does not take into account the multitude of suppressed memories of the majority of its people will always be weak, basing its survival on the exclusion of dissent and otherness.
Those whose lives are not valued, not given narrative dignity, cannot really be part of the solution of the abiding problems of our times.”
Through a serious and inclusive process that includes truth telling, and the eradication of fear, we can foster a spirit of healing and begin to achieve the deep reconciliation that we need for ourselves and our children.
(Excerpts on Dorfman’s lecture taken from www.nelsonmandela.org)
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