Just recently, a 40-strong group of Zimbabwean citizens that said they were war veterans gathered in Harare to protest their poor living conditions.
They had intended to march to President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s office at Munhumutapa to deliver a petition that contained their grievances. But, before they could do that, they were arrested, taken to court and thrown into the remand cooler. Their crime? Inciting public violence or breaching the peace for singing revolutionary songs in central Harare.
No prize for guessing, of course. That charge is ridiculous and will never stick in any competent court of law. What’s this thing about revolutionary songs starting to be criminal now? How many songs did they sing at this year’s Zanu PF annual conference? Who got arrested? Me and many other people, we were enjoying the songs and actually danced along. So whose peace was being disturbed and what violence was instigated by the songs?
The truth is, some Longjohns didn’t like the sight and sound of that crowd demanding better pensions or making a scene that disturbed their eating. The poor souls are getting less than US$100 a month in pensions after all. Granted, not all of the protesters looked exactly hungry, but lots of war veterans are miring in poverty, perhaps just like most of us here in this God-forsaken country.
You will remember, too, that in early August, another gang of 9 people that also said they were war veterans gathered outside Mthuli Ncube’s office, again demanding better pensions, among other things. They were arrested for, just like in this fresh case, allegedly inciting public violence. That group didn’t sing as much as a hymn. It was just waiting to have a word with Mthuli. Heaven knows what happened to those poor chaps’ cases.
But then, it’s not like there is anything new about people who come along as war veterans getting arrested for protesting against bad living conditions. It happened quite dramatically from 2016, for instance, as the late former president, Robert Mugabe, slowly walked into the twilight of his rule. It happened as they were organising the coup that then toppled Mugabe in November 2017. And they were sprayed with heavy water and tear smoke for caring to get onto the streets. They were arrested for allegedly undermining the authority of the deity, Mugabe.
Funny how things hardly change under the Zimbabwean sun. But the difference is that, then, the protesting former liberation war veterans had some kind of form. They went in as a relatively well-defined mass, rather than the miniature crowds we are seeing these days. There were big names during Mugabe’s last days. The likes of Chris Mutsvangwa, Victor Matemadanda, Douglas Mahiya and Francis Nhando, who then openly declared that their relationship with Mugabe had broken down beyond repair and they wanted a new sun, a new leader.
But then, with these war veterans, are they good or bad war veterans? Must we do a mourning vigil for them or not? It’s obvious there are thousands, if not millions of people who will never forgive these veterans for what they did in the past. What forgets is the axe, not the tree that the axe cuts. At the turn of the millennium, these war veterans were bad news for lots of people in both rural and urban areas.
They killed, raped and maimed. They were law unto themselves. They forced factories to shut down and, therefore, have contributed to the current joblessness as the majority of the firms they closed down have not returned. Who forgets the sight of Joseph Chinotimba—with that infamous grass hat—leading militias into the industrial areas like he was a Hutu commander, accusing the firm managers and workers of being sellouts? That was in the heydays of the fast track land reform programme. Coincidentally, the likes of Chinotimba became obviously rich during those madding days. We don’t exactly know how. Needless to say, you don’t see Chinotimba protesting on the streets today. Protesting has become irrelevant to him.
Maybe that’s the point when you see the other veterans protesting. They have been forgotten. The luckier ones have run away with the feeding trough. Indeed, this is what they are saying. Like this other lady a few days ago who said she couldn’t make the difference between Victoria Falls and the Dettifoss, because she has no money to go to the resort town. Yet she walked all the way to Mozambique to fight the racist colonisers when she was hardly into puberty.
Never mind her hierarchy of “needs”, her point is valid, in this regard. Those that have settled well have abandoned the comrades. If you see it that way, there is a good reason for you to see rhyme in the series of protests by the war veterans. After all the sacrifices they made during the war of liberation, their commander, President Mnangagwa—for instance—is hiring jets from exotic lands across the seas just to visit his village and count the night owls, while they wallow in poverty.
How many millions are being wasted by government when the money could be used to take care of the welfare of those that brought independence to Zimbabwe?
But, again, it’s very hard for lots of people out there to start sympathising with the war veterans. Besides their ugly history, there are other good reasons to be pessimistic when the war vets start howling for better living conditions. Like, how come we only have small crowds who, now and then, appear on our streets and start claiming they are war veterans who are going hungry, what what?
If their grievances were really genuine, it would make better sense for them to organise themselves into respectably big groups whose voice would be easier to hear. It’s always going to be weird for nine or so people to try and bring their cause to the authorities and assume they will be heard. After all, there are so many thousands, if not millions, other Zimbabweans who didn’t necessarily go to war but are in the same predicament as them. Why not join hands with them and make your cause heard?
These war veterans sometimes make ridiculous demand. We don’t mind that they pressured for $50,000 gratuities and cause indirectly caused the crush of our currency donkey years ago, but then who will listen to them seriously when they demand diplomatic passports and medical treatment in foreign countries like they are sometimes prone to do?
We are in a mad season. It’s easy to disguise these protests as genuine protests. But history has taught us to be wary. Prior to the removal of Mugabe, these war veterans were doing a similar thing, though on a larger scale. They were doing the bidding for the coup plotters who finally pushed Mugabe out.
There is no doubt that there are intense power contestations in the ruling Zanu PF now. What if the protests are part of a strategy by one of the factions to smear internal foes, gathering momentum as we go to 2023? Never mind the fact that the crowds are still small. They might grow bigger as things hot up. But, in the meantime, the tiny crowds are sending the message across. Someone must get out and make way for someone else.
This may sound crude, but it will take a lot of energy to tag along with the so-called war vets’ serialised howlings.
Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org