When a nation is going through transformation, its memory becomes key to its identity.
Zimbabwe is rich in memory; both painful and joyful.
The very name “Zimbabwe” speaks volumes of our might as a people. When we look at the conical tower, we savour the memory of a Great Zimbabwe in hope that one day this pride shall be restored.
As the nation moves towards healing and reconciliation, it is important that we locate the role of memory in this process.
The collective memory of a society has immense power to transform the future. It would be a tragedy if this is lost. Can a nation lose its memory?
It can. It is difficult to challenge the memory of one individual. It is indisputable. The same cannot be said of the collective memory of a society.
This has to be negotiated because different events affecting one society cannot be interpreted in the same way by all members of that society.
This brings in issues of the societies’ right to “truth”.
But because this is an issue affecting a number of people, these “truths” are contestable.
A single society may have “many truths”. In order for that society to get to an agreed “truth”, there is need for negotiation and reconstruction.
When a nation fails or refuses to engage in this process, there is a real danger of memory loss or distortion.
Why is memory important? It is often said that history repeats itself. This isn’t accurate. History is often repeated by people who never learn from it, or whose memory of yesterday is short and blurred.
In the life of every individual or society, there is tragedy and romance. There is always the good which everyone wishes to remember and the evil which everyone wishes to forget.
The perfect case would be South Africa 2010 World Cup which features in our generation as an intercourse of tragedy and romance for it was a honeymoon that fed on the tragic memory of apartheid.
The human race cannot forget.
It must not forget.
Forgetting the past creates the danger of repeating it.
Societies struggling to transform themselves from a legacy of human rights violations must not only be compassionate to victims of today, but also the victims of tomorrow.
Millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis. There stands today in Jerusalem the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial erected in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
Its significance can be best understood in the context of the emotions aroused in those who visit it today.
In May 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, laying a wreath at the memorial said:
“May the names of these victims never perish. May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten. They lost their lives but they will never lose their names. These are indelibly etched in the hearts of their loved ones, their surviving fellow prisoners and all those determined never to allow such an atrocity to disgrace mankind again.”
Memory is a tribute to the victims and survivors, and a statement that the society rejects the evil that befell them. It is a commitment to working towards non-repetition.
Like any other society, Zimbabwe has its own romance and tragedy.
The country entered into independence with such a sudden burst of patriotism.
The Zimbabwean story, although it had many versions, was generally agreeable.
The government embarked on several projects to preserve the Zimbabwean memory and pay tribute to heroes and survivors.
It was in pursuance of this that the National Heroes’ Acre was built in honour of the memory of the struggle for independence.
The change of name from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe itself was a great return to the memory of Great Zimbabwe.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before we started creating an ugly memory. Between 1982 and 1987, Gukurahundi wiped out over 20 000 civilians in the Midlands and Matabeleland.
The society was shaken to the core and the pillars of social trust crumbled.
Today, when the official story of Zimbabwe is told, this period is blurred, owing to the failure by the government to acknowledge the atrocity.
The right of societies to truth is not luxury; it is central to their identity. Survivors of an atrocity have the right to know of the whereabouts of their loved ones.
The dead, in the African context, have rights too; they have the right to “return home” and receive a dignified burial. The Zimbabwean child has the right to learn the accurate history of Zimbabwe.
The tragedy of Gukurahundi is not only that the government has refused to acknowledge the atrocities, but it has also gone ahead to thwart the activities of other players interested in helping the victims.
The little that the government did was to appoint the sterile Chihambakwe Committee of Inquiry in January 1984 which collected evidence but no report was published.
This forced civil society to step into the gap. Legal Resources Foundation and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace documented the Gukurahundi atrocities leading to the publication of the report, Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace in 1997.
To date, Breaking the Silence remains the only report on the Gukurahundi atrocities.
This momentous work of civil society has helped to prevent the loss of a critical memory of post-colonial Zimbabwe. Today, if anyone must make reference to the Gukurahundi era, Breaking the Silence remains the only source of information. Though unofficial, the report has managed to limit the margins of permissible lies and denials by government.
It has offered a consolation to the victims that someone is ready to listen to their stories.
The coalition government is charged with the duty to heal the nation.
It is clear that the Organ on National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration has (since its establishment in February 2009) been pushing the society into “collective amnesia” of the past as a “mechanism” towards healing.
They are asking the nation to forgive and forget, kiss and make up.
This is not healing at all, but a further injury upon the bleeding communities that expect much from the government.
Victim families, communities and Zimbabwe as a whole have the right to “truth”. What actually happened? Why? Can it be prevented?
These are truths that burn beneath the surface, a memory that cries for revelation and acknowledgement.
For any government that is serious about national healing, there is need to realise that all violations that have taken place within Zimbabwe’s “livable memory” are a truly Zimbabwean memory that must be recovered and acknowledged.
We owe it to the victims that their names may never perish and that their suffering may never be denied, belittled or forgotten.
Dzikamai Bere works for a local human rights organisation. He writes in his personal capacity. Comments can be sent to the editor or to firstname.lastname@example.org