Veterans of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle still believe they have a role to play in running the economy and a say on who takes over the levers of power after President Robert Mugabe eventually leaves office. NewsDay senior reporter Richard Chidza (ND) recently had an exclusive interview with Zimbabwe National War Veterans’ Association chairman and War Veterans minister Christopher Mutsvangwa (CM) over a wide range of issues concerning former fighters and their role in the country’s present day body politic. Below are excerpts of the interview:
ND: What projects and programmes have you put in place since your election as chairman and appointment as War Veterans minister?
CM: I would want to express our gratitude to President (Robert) Mugabe and the party for seeing it fit to have a dedicated ministry responsible for war veterans. Since independence the welfare of war veterans has not been at the centre of government policy. We had a transition to independence that was unique at that time, where a fighting force poised for victory ended up accepting that they were so popular and agreed to go into an election that we won in 1980. It became a gradual transition instead of a knee-jerk like the one that happened in Angola and Mozambique. There were advantages to that because anything done in a gradual and peaceful manner is good. Society does not like knee-jerks, but along the way the welfare of war veterans took a backseat despite the fact that the majority joined the unified army that is the Zimbabwe Defence Forces.
I am happy that we have a ministry that addresses these and other issues based on a Constitution that recognises the comrades who sacrificed the only life they had as an offering for the independence of this country. There are issues to do with school fees, pensions, health and infrastructure that need addressing. Some made it through without limbs; some did not make it through. They suffered deprivation, hunger, chemical weapons and all. They lost anything from five years of their life and that is a huge thing which needs recognition. There is a yawning gap between what ought to be done and what is being done and it relates to lack of resources on the part of Treasury.
ND: You double as chairperson of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association and War Veterans minister, is there no conflict of interest?
CM: The War Veterans’ Association is a pressure group and the President in his wisdom saw it fit that the chairman becomes the minister. The position of chairman is an elected one and I have an obligation to fulfil the mandate of those who elected me. The position of minister is the prerogative of the President. I can answer questions related to my election as chairman, but as for the ministerial and politburo positions, I can direct you to State House [President Mugabe’s residence]. The job I value most is the chairmanship; it is an elected job, I feel a fiducial role to it and feel it is an honour, sacrifice on my part. I feel that with my capabilities and diverse background including in business, I am offering my services to our membership. I abandoned my studies at the University of Rhodesia with a merit scholarship from the racist system then, and like many others of my generation joined the war effort and when I took this role I am fulfilling the ideals of all those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom.
ND: After the turmoil that hit Zanu PF last year, do you think the war veterans are more united than they were before?
CM: Yeah, I think we are more united. We did have a hiccup in Manicaland because there are outside forces who think they can abuse the veterans. The aura of the struggle is so strong that any irredentist or opposition parties, who do not have the camouflage of the liberation struggle, comes to naught. That is why Zanu PF, according to the President, has no fissures, but there are in the MDC. We are more united and efforts to divide us have come to naught.
ND: Has the military had anything to do with the coming in of your leadership?
CM: Of course the war veterans founded the army; we founded the army and are organic to it. The army comes from crucibles of our sacrifices. Remember we are a reserve force and if things come to a head you can always count on the war veterans to come to the assistance of the army. We are, however, an association and the military is professional and has its own systems. It will not involve itself in politics unless the State is threatened as happened in 2008. The State which we founded was under threat and in such instances the war veterans and the army come together to defend it. It is the same in America; anyone can be President as long as they do not belittle George Washington’s war and his ethos.
ND: Will the military have a say on the succession issue?
CM: We are obviously conscious of that issue. You do not as young people fight for power and then get divorced from it because remember, we are idealistic. We saw a certain future for Zimbabwe and that is why we were prepared to sacrifice the only life we had. It would be out of character if we are not going to be interested because it means our sacrifice was in vain. We will always be pre-occupied with [issues of power]. If we forget the ethos of what we fought for, that is why we are working hard to make sure that the heritage of the struggle is passed on from generation to generation and support the President’s rallying call that Zimbabwe will never be a colony again. That is a salient point, we will not allow a repeat of what happened in 1894 when marauding mercenaries came into the country and lorded over Chinengundu Mashayamombe, Chingaira Makoni, Chitekedza Chiwashira and King Lobengula eventually taking their heads as war trophies to London [British capital].
ND: Do you think there is a real threat of that happening again in the 21st century?
CM: It can never be overlooked; we need to make sure we are on our guard. We cannot rely on the charity of an aggressor not to invade you. We always have to be prepared and we know the whole gamut of the war from physical, mental or political and asymmetrical warfare, we remain ready. We organised an indigent population into a mighty fighting force to overcome the British.
ND: Do you agree that Zimbabweans who assisted with the war effort should be compensated over and above the war veterans?
CM: Yes, they come under my ministry, the Constitution provides for that and that is why we are working on a new economy. It required a vision to have an army that we have and defend the political system we established at independence. We now need a vision to do business in a manner which reflects our capabilities. We have seen a yawning gap between our aspirations as a business and the actual performance of the present businessmen. You will be surprised that the next crop of successful businesspeople in the country will come from the war veterans, that is as sure as the next sunrise. If you do not believe it go back to 1975 or 2013. My ministry will become the incubator of the crucible of the new Zimbabwean businessman.
ND: What is your view regarding veterans of the struggle and collaborators who helped during the war, but have joined the opposition, should they benefit from government aid?
CM: As a minister my door is open to all who participated in the war effort. I will respect [Zapu Leader] Dumiso [Dabengwa], Jabulani Sibanda and [MKD leader] Simba Makoni. My ministry did not accord them that status and I cannot deny them a historical reality. You cannot undo history. I will respect all veterans in their diversity. They chose that status by participating in the war. But of course I will not respect those who were traitors during the war. We will respect those that are loyal to the President and the two liberation movements’ military wings Zipra [Zapu] and Zanla [Zanu] from which we draw our membership.
ND: Which brings us to the issue of according people national heroes status and, in particular, the late Freedom Nyamubaya.You wanted her declared a national hero, but that request was denied.
CM: I am happy that the party embraced veterans and heroes like Freedom Nyamubaya a heroic woman and poet. Some people had other views about her, but the party and the President saw it fit that her role during the war be recognised. This is what we stand for, the war was about bringing out bravery, integrity and sacrifice and whenever it was shown we should give it due accord. We will be open to the issue of nation liberation heroes’ status to recognise every heroic effort from that time. And that is what Nyamubaya’s status is about. A hero is a hero from Nikita Mangena, Josiah Tongogara and the unknown soldier.
ND: What are the programmes that you have set up for the benefit for war veterans and Zimbabweans generally?
CM: In the politburo, the association and Cabinet I am the expression of the new economy that war veterans aspire to and which they had a vision for when they went to war, that is a new economy that puts them at par with anyone from the Brazilians, Japanese, Americans, Germans and Turkish. We also do not want to be second to none just like our political system and that vision has been singularly missing. We cannot have a country where prominent businessmen are preachers. You cannot have a country in which prominent businessmen are failed bankers even with indigenisation. The organisational flair, discipline and patriotism of the war veterans has been missing in our business. We are going to harness that and begin to look at our resources from minerals to human capital which is global class. White capitalists refused us a chance to be part of the financial system during the era of late former war veterans leader Chenjerai Hunzvi. The financial system at that time rejected us because we had defeated them during the war and led to the formation of a Cinderella bank by Nigel Chanakira, but still they did not allow the money to circulate into the formal financial system. We have created a platform for global business and the Chinese and Indians are coming in. They are happy to deal with us on an equal basis, the war veterans have always been global players.
ND: You have been running around looking for funding to build memorial hospitals for war veterans, how far are you with that?
CM: It is now at Cabinet committee stage. We have identified some of the best businessmen in the world. We have scanned the top business players because our asset quality is good. We have been selling the Zimbabwean story everywhere. In India we are partnering with Shapuji Palonji and we will do a roll-out of hospitals worth $250-$300 million that will offer the sort of treatment that people fly to India for. We will start with Harare and Victoria Falls before other provinces. The funding is virtually in place. There will be investments in steel industry and we have identified a partner including a top global investment banker. They have an office in the country which they opened in April.
ND: What is the name of the bank?
CM: It is called Citic, they are ranked 40th in the world and are credited with having built a city in Luanda called Kilamba and China’s Shenzhen near Hong-Kong whose population jumped from 200 000 people in 1978 to nine million currently. They are working on a new economy for Zimbabwe.
ND: Haven’t these investors complained about the indigenisation law?
CM: No. There is nothing wrong with the indigenisation law. You find it in every country and in fact this policy opened opportunities for these partners because previously it was only the British who could be business-people and now the Indians and Chinese can come in freely, they want to be part of the economy.
ND: Do you not think the law should be tweaked a bit?
CM: Every investment climate has to be constantly tweaked and we have to be improving all the time because we are in a competitive environment. It is not a static situation, but we will be very vigilant with our mineral resources because they are depletable. But capital is competitive and we have to constantly improve the environment. However, we have a competitive advantage, our chrome, diamonds and platinum deposits are world-class. Our chrome is good and ask the Americans in 1971 passed the Byrd Amendment [an amendment to the United States Federal Strategic and Critical Materials Stock Piling Act. It created an exception in the United States embargo of Rhodesia regarding chrome ore, the main alternative source for which was the Soviet Union] which said the US would not stop buying Rhodesian chrome because of its quality. We will not have a one size fits all, it is a dynamic world. We will continue to tweak and review the law, we are war veterans, and we are adaptable. Indigenisation means we should bargain hard where we have a comparative advantage and give in when we do not have. Do things according to terrain, flexibility is in our DNA. But we will not fret with our competitive advantage.