GROWING up, I remember many of my primary school teachers telling us of the dissidents (pronounced di-ziidents for emotive effect), who were a threat to the security of the country in the late 1980s and how they were the enemies of the Zimbabwean people. This narrative was repeated in high school history classes and I was certain dissidents were the equivalent of home grown terrorists. Those of you familiar with Zimbabwean history will know that the term was ascribed to “defecting Zipra soldiers” in the Matabeleland region. The premise for sending the infamous Fifth Brigade to that area was supposedly because the “dissidents threatened to destabilise the country as a whole”.
GUEST COLUMN,PAUL KASEKE
Unfortunately, this is what we were sold as truth and we came to generally despise anyone labelled as a dissident.
It is not uncommon to find newspaper articles during that period that constantly referred to the threat of dissidents. In fact, the Executive first used the word in relation to the defecting soldiers and the press caught on and with time, the masses caught on too. I tested this theory by asking 150 varied participants aged between 20 and 45 what the meaning of dissident is without the aid of any dictionary or google. Surprisingly, every one of the responses indicated some common elements: terrorism, overthrowing a democratic government, violence, unlawful ouster, hiding of arms, militant and secessionist. For some reason, I found myself bored enough to actually look the word up and here is what I found:
“A dissident is a person, who disagrees and criticises their government publicly.”
As a noun, it refers to a person who opposes official policy, especially that of a military or authoritarian state.
Synonyms include dissenter, objector, freethinker, and nonconformist, revolutionary.
From Latin, the word literally means to sit apart and from about the 16th century, it came to mean differing in opinion or character.
As you can see, there is nothing sinister about the word dissident but over the years, Zimbabweans have a different understanding of the word. I find it sad and disturbing that the majority of Zimbabweans were made to believe that dissidents are bad people, who are unwelcome in a democracy. The opposite is true — a democracy is a democracy because dissidents dare oppose the authoritarian nature of the government. Inevitably, all opposition parties are made of dissidents. A truly democratic country needs dissidents. With reference to the definition, the ANC in South Africa was made up of dissidents, who chose to oppose the Apartheid State. Nelson Mandela was, therefore, a dissident. Back home, it is, therefore, also true that the war veterans were dissidents, who opposed the Ian Smith government. They opposed the policy of minority rule and they certainly were revolutionary in that regard. It’s not an insult. It’s a great title.
I was intrigued to trace back who first misunderstood the term in the ruling party and why nobody has dared correct this misuse of the word. If this was the grounding argument for the deployment of the army in Matabeleland and Midlands, then I would go as far as saying then the government had no trigger basis to deploy the army. If we are to rely on the government’s proposition that there were dissidents in the area that they were targeting, then tacitly and unwittingly, the government admitted that it was leading an authoritarian state and there were some objectors. The existence of a destabilising force in the area is contentious, but if it did in fact exist, the term the government was looking for could not have been “dissidents” unless the government wants to admit to being an authoritarian state.
As I have mentioned earlier, dissidents or objectors are healthy and perform a pivotal function of keeping checks and balances of sorts. How was this, therefore, a problem for the government?
Ironically, a few years before Gukurahundi, they themselves were the dissidents gunning for a free Zimbabwe. At which point did the word change its meaning?
Gukurahundi has been brushed aside as “a period of madness”. That is, however, not a justification in law or elsewhere for the killing of innocent civilians. It is appropriate at this stage to say Gukurahundi was nothing short of genocide, claiming the lives of an estimated 20 000 to 30 000 using statistics from the agencies and journalists working in the area at the time.
It amazes me that this government has succeeded in pumping so much propaganda that lies became our truth. We didn’t question the existence of such dissidents and indeed nobody was really brought to book after the killings. The propaganda of dissidents was enough to stifle logic. Our history textbooks have recorded the same propaganda and we gobbled it all the way without questioning the legitimacy of the claims fed to us. When commissions of inquiry were set up before and after the killings, and their findings were never made public, the propaganda of dissidents was enough to silence us and again, stifle logic. To date, the Chihambakwe and Dumbutshena reports have never been released to the public nor debated in parliament for the adoption or rejection of the findings.
I recall watching a documentary on the killings on YouTube and one overzealous youth said “Nkomo is a dissident, so he must leave the country”, this was in reference to the late Father Zimbabwe and former Vice-President of Zimbabwe, Joshua Nkomo, who at the time had gone into exile after his house was attacked and members of his family killed. This young man was fed on what the nation was fed: The propaganda of dissidents and that was enough for him. In his mind, a dissident was a terrorist. He of course had no evidence of any of the claims made by the government, but he bought it. After all, the dissident propaganda had been well oiled by ZBC and state controlled print media. A blanket amnesty was later granted for persons involved during this period, but that has not healed the wounds. Indeed the wounds will never heal, as long as full disclosure is not made and people are held accountable for the period. I will, at some point, in the near future, return to discuss this part of our national history with the detail and attention it deserves. What is relevant for this article, however, is that the same word thrown around that started the Gukurahundi killings has come back to haunt the very same people who were previously considered dissidents under Smith.
According to several media reports, the war veterans have been labelled the new dissidents by one of their own.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing! However, I am worried more than anything that the dissident propaganda will blind us from seeing what lies behind the branding. Why are they now dissidents? More importantly, what actions will be taken to “deal” with these dissidents, since history tells us that dissidents are not welcome in Zimbabwe? This is where my largest concern is. I hope that the branding remains nothing more than just talk and that no attempts are made to “eliminate”an entire group of people ever again.
While the government has generally never apologised for Gukurahundi, the most meaningful statement to have come out of Cabinet regarding this is from the late Moven Mahachi who said “…events during that period are regretted and should not be repeated by anybody, any group of people or any institution in this country”. While we do not know enough as we should about Gukurahundi to prevent it from happening again, we do know that there was propaganda involved — the propaganda of dissidents to be exact.
What we can do is to question things that government says and interrogate for ourselves the substance of the claims it makes at rallies or through its agencies, especially now that elections are around the corner. History has shown us that the dissident propaganda is thrown around to not only justify state brutality but to lay the ground for massive persecution of purported enemies of the government. History also tells us that the same perpetrators of the killings in the 1980s will do anything and everything to establish more control. These are desperate times fellow Zimbabweans. We are all dissidents for speaking out against corruption and for demanding the return of the rule of law, prosperity, accountability and transparency. Be careful. Be vigilant. Be on guard as they continue to spin their dissident propaganda.
Paul Kaseke is a legal advisor, commentator, analyst and sessional law lecturer with the Wits Law School. He writes in his personal capacity. You can give him feedback via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @paulkasekesnr