In 2007, when the country’s political temperatures were rising ahead of a Zanu PF congress and the 2008 elections, I asked now Zapu leader, Dumiso Dabengwa whether he had thought of writing a book, he promised that he was working on something.
Candour with Nqaba Matshazi
Dabengwa was clearly on his way out of Zanu PF and he was bemoaning what he thought was the distortion of history and he promised that his memoirs would set the record straight on some misconceptions, particularly the role Zapu and Zipra played in the attainment of the country’s independence.
At that point, Dabengwa had fallen out of favour with Zanu PF and President Robert Mugabe, with then war veterans’ leader, Jabulani Sibanda the flavour of the month.
This irked Dabengwa, who felt Sibanda was being used to promote revisionism and downplay Zipra’s role.
In the same vein, the late Vice-President John Nkomo also said he was working on a book that will tell his side of the story.
Nkomo had served in senior capacities within Zapu, but in spite of his seniority, some viewed him as an outsider, as he was deployed to Zapu from South Africa’s ANC, the party he had initially joined, triggering some fierce resistance to his promotion to the vice-presidency.
The late former Vice-President Joseph Msika also threatened to write his autobiography, but like his successor, died without anything written.
The late Enos Nkala became infamous for saying his tell-all autobiography would be published after his death because he feared a backlash, but many years after he died, there is no book to talk about.
I am raising these issues because there is almost consensus that Zimbabwe’s history is distorted, yet the country’s luminaries are not doing enough to tell their stories and, thereby, correct what they see as misconceptions.
This is particularly the case with the former Zapu lot, who feel they have been airbrushed out of history, with their role reduced to almost a footnote.
I remember a senior political figure frothing at the mouth at a pro-Mugabe song that seemed to reduce Nkomo to just an ally in the war, rather than someone who contributed immensely.
The song’s lyrics said something to the effect that the singer would like to thank “Mugabe, our leader in the struggle” and we would also like to “thank Nkomo, a close friend during the struggle”.
Whether this was meant to belittle Nkomo is anyone’s guess, but the senior official was quite peeved.
On the other hand, more than 50 years after he joined politics, we do not have a biography of Mugabe written by a local, with most written by foreigners based on conjecture and innuendo.
There is one that I enjoyed reading, Dinner with Mugabe, by Heidi Holland, but that seems to be the only one.
Compare this with South Africa, where there are dozens of books about former leaders, Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela for example.
There are also innumerable films on South Africa’s struggle for freedom, which was not very different from ours by the way, but there is little of that sort on these shores.
Mugabe may plead that he is busy and has not had time to write an autobiography, but his contemporaries like Mandela and the late Libyan leader, Muammar Ghaddafi put pen to paper and their books were important to their respective countries.
The closest I got to reading about Mugabe was a biography of his late wife, Sally Mugabe, written by Nathan Shamuyarira, which turned out to be a hagiography of the veteran leader.
There have been many brave attempts at biographies and autobiographies by the likes of MDC-T leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, Judith Todd, David Coltart, Wilfred Mhanda and Nkomo’s Story of My Life, but these are far too few and more have to be written.
It will be sad if the liberation generation go without writing their memoirs because these people are a treasure trove of history and knowledge, which we need as a country to take us forward.
Black nationalist, Marcus Garvey once remarked that: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”, and I feel we are like that tree as Zimbabwe.
I am sure I am not the only one who would love to know what inspired Mugabe, Dabengwa, Lookout Masuku and Joice Mujuru to join the struggle or the ideologies they followed.
Mugabe remains an enigma to many right now and I am certain his autobiography would be a best seller and historians would love to pore through it.
Zimbabwe’s history continues to be a contested terrain because there are very few people writing about it, with a few voices dominating the narrative.
Maybe the powers that be like it that way, where their roles are mystified and made the stuff of legends by the official record, but this should not stop opposition players like Dabengwa from writing their own accounts, which could help dispel the myths.
There is a lot that is unknown about our history and narrations from a first person narrative are missing, which can only be filled if this generation of leaders write their own books and accounts of what happened, rather than this scenario where we are fed with second-hand information, which is unhelpful to anyone.
But as American author, Robert Fulghum said: “The myth is more potent than history” and that could be the reason why many do not want to write.
Maybe for most of this crop of leaders, their role in the liberation struggle is exaggerated and they prefer it this way.
If they were to write about their histories, the veneer of invincibility would be lifted and their legendary status questioned.
So they prefer it this way, where they are enigmas, but the ultimate losers are Zimbabweans, who will lack knowledge of what drove the personalities that dominate our history.
Such stories can serve as an inspiration, to drive the country forward when there is no hope and serve as a rear view mirror, as we forge ahead.