Saturday, March 5, 2011

A subaltern President, and coming to terms with the past

By Advocate Lucas Nkomo
Posted to the web: 01/12/2008 14:17:28
THE ongoing debate on the possibility or otherwise, of a President whose ethnicity is other than that of the clans that comprise the Shona ethnic grouping in Zimbabwe, is of undoubted political significance.

From a deliberative democracy point of view, debates on such issues as race and ethnicity, while punctuated by clashes between basic political orientations and values, nonetheless have the potential to create new frames for interpreting political issues, change the ideas and interests of political actors, and restructure the relationship between them.
While there is no expectation in the ongoing debate that the better argument will carry the day, the debate may foster mutual respect among individuals with irreconcilable positions. On the other hand, such debates may also produce polarisation and new lines of political conflict that can transform state configuration. Either way, the potential of the debate as the engine of ideational change is portentous.
This article seeks to contribute to the debate by responding to a recent contribution by Itai Garande. Itai’s lengthy article ranges far and wide in its sweep, and, for that reason, does not lend itself to easy understanding of its basic claims. It is also tinted with a jaundiced conception of the foundation and sustainability of the Zimbabwean state as a colonial construct.
However, what quickly becomes apparent from the opening gambit in the first paragraph of Garande’s article, and runs through the entire piece, is the breathtaking panache with which he attempts to deploy clever word-play and theoretical conceptualisations: the debates on the Obama phenomenon are “predicated on an a-priori assumption” about racism in America; the debate on race “is not entirely misplaced”; the times we live in are “in a state of constant flux”; and many more to be considered later.
Going through the first five or so paragraphs leaves one wondering what exactly Itai is trying to say about racism in America. He makes the bold assertion that debates on Obama are “predicated on an a-priori assumption” about racism in America without elaborating. Racism as a lived experience in America needs no special pleading. From slavery, the Dred Scott case, the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow South, the civil rights movement and so on – is the knowledge of all these an “a-prior assumption” of racism in Garande’s world?
Further, the problem with Garande’s article does not lie in the attempt to create a distorted caricature and intentional obfuscation of lived experience and observable reality. The problem is that, like many who have written in blind defence of tired nationalism, he drags his arguments up and down the vacuous lane; he affirms and refutes the same position without any qualms.
What else can one call it when Garande opens one paragraph by claiming: “Whether or not there will be a Ndebele president in Zimbabwe is not the issue. There will definitely be a president from some ethnic tribe...”
In another paragraph, barely a paragraph apart, Garande’s opening line is: “The arguments about a Ndebele president or not are important arguments. They should be discussed.”
A further few lines down, Garande claims: “I do not think that tribalism persists as an active contemporary phenomenon...” Not long after this, one encounters the assertion: “Tribalism exists in our Zimbabwean society... It is the preserve of a mischievous minority few.”
Such apparent self-contradictions aside, there is something else, more insidious and symptomatic of ethnic conceit, that emerges from Garande’s assumptions. In a telling paragraph, Garande alleges: “Tribe has only been invoked at a time of crisis by those who seek meaning and explanation, for instance the latest desire to resuscitate PF-Zapu or calls by extreme groups for the creation of a Matebele state.”
By some poorly disguised sleight of hand, Garande indulges in a favourite gimmick of his like-minded kith and kin: that of hurling the “tribalism” accusation at any political endeavour that seeks to end the nepotistic political hegemony of one grouping of clans to the detriment of the rest within the Zimbabwean post-colony.
One must bear in mind that Garande declares somewhere that “tribalism exists in our Zimbabwean society... It is the preserve of a mischievous minority few” (my emphasis). Note that he does not claim that tribalism is limited to a few individuals - that would be too much despite the air of pseudo-quantitative analysis that runs through his article. What he is saying in fact is that tribalism is the preserve of those constantly referred to as the “minority” in the Zimbabwean polity: the peoples and tribes that comprise the Ndebele nation. Such self-deluding ethnic chauvinism and conceit is not new.
Going through Garande’s glibly written article, one is left with a distinct impression of an atavistic mindset which holds that when those who are “othered” as so-called “minorities” assert themselves within the state power structure, then, for that reason alone, they are mischievous and ‘tribal’. It even becomes clear that Garande is part of the self-styled primordial “majority” grouping who masquerade as the sole hegemonic heirs to the “colonial construct” that is the Zimbabwean state.
It is in fact easier to understand Garande’s position and mindset by what he does not venture to mention, than from the mishmash of generalisations in his article. He does not dare mention the Gukurahundi genocide, carried out by a military brigade of decidedly exclusive ethnic composition. Why? It is because, though the Gukurahundi state massacres were a product of the political ideas and visions of select Zanu PF cadres, the psychology that informed them became deeply embedded in the consanguineous support base of the “Mugabe Country”. Video evidence of Zanu PF supporters at the time of the atrocities waving fliers inscribed “Pamperi ne 5th Brigade, we wish you well” and individuals calling for the late Joshua Nkomo to be hanged, does not need one to resort to “a-priori assumptions” to understand it.
No amount of pseudo-postmodern theorising and ransacking of the so-called “present epoch...that is in a state of flux” for far-fetched examples can detract from the fact that the Zimbabwean post-colony continue to be haunted by the spectre of the Gukurahundi genocide. The past is part of any present context in so far as the very idea of the “present” entails the existence of the past. It is over twenty years since the atrocities were committed and the perpetrators have chosen to barricade themselves behind state power with the misplaced hope that their guilt and responsibility will somehow vanish in the mists of time.
Indeed, the current situation in Zimbabwe has come to be, largely because those who conceived and executed the Gukurahundi genocide were allowed to entrench themselves within the state, turning the state into an institutional shield against due process of law that ought to be the neutral arbiter of their criminal actions. Their fear of facing the moment of truth relating to the genocide has driven them to tenaciously cling to state power, even if it means committing further atrocities. They cannot even trust sharing, let alone relinquishing, state power to Morgan Tsvangirai, a Zanu PF political son, having cut his political teeth within Zanu PF at the time the atrocities were committed.
It may be that Garande cannot stomach such facts largely because the Zimbabwean post-colony has not frankly confronted and come to terms with the Gukurahundi past as one factor that will always haunt the “nation” credo until it is expiated.
In an essay titled “What does coming to terms with the past mean?”, written in the wake of the Nazi atrocities during World War II, German philosopher Theodor Adorno cautioned his countrymen against evasions and repressions stemming from a desire to be free of the Nazi past.
In urging Germans to squarely confront the spectre of Nazi atrocities, Adorno warned that: “We will not have come to terms with the past until the causes of what happened then are no longer active. Only because these causes live on does the spell of the past remain, to this very day, unbroken.”
These sentiments are as relevant to the Zimbabwean post-colony in confronting the Gukurahundi atrocities as they were relevant to a post-World War II Germany trying to come to terms with Nazi atrocities. The way in which a society confronts its past, especially a past marked by massive state atrocities, affects its long-term political development.
The price that most citizens of the Zimbabwean polity are paying for the evasions and failures in the past 20 years to cleanse the state of those whose hands drip with the blood of Gukurahundi victims is a moribund state that has wrought utter immiseration. When the state is a haven for all sorts of criminals, is it surprising that it also turns out to be such a pestilential incubus?
Instead of making incoherent speculations like “rotating the presidency keeps the wheels of vengeance turning, and reduces human polity to a series of never-ending vendettas – where each time a Shona is elected, tribalism is evoked, and vice versa”, Garande ought to understand that those who wield state power are already holding everyone to ransom because of their fear of vengeance and retribution over atrocities.
One need to remember that just recently, President Robert Mugabe used the occasion of the 63rd session of the UN General Assembly to accuse Western governments of genocide in Iraq and in the course of his homily, revealed something of profound implications for the Zimbabwean polity.
“The masses of innocent men, women and children who have perished in their thousands in Iraq surely demand retribution and vengeance. Who shall heed their cry?” he intoned.
The absurd spectacle of someone with a peculiar record on the same score, making accusations of genocide, evokes the kind of irony that is referred to by one film critic as Lynchian, after filmmaker David Lynch. Lynchian irony is defined as “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter”. A thoroughgoing Lynchian example is that of a murderer who keeps his victims’ anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and spread.
But, crucially, it is Mugabe’s view of genocide through the prism of retribution and vengeance that ought to awaken the likes of Garande to the need for serious reflections on the Gukurahundi atrocities and the charting of a new way forward for both the perpetrators and the victims. Lived experience shows that no principle is held more firmly or acted upon more universally than that of literal and exact retributions in man’s dealings with his fellows – the iron rule of doing unto others the wrongs which others have done unto you.
The victims and survivors of the Gukurahundi genocide have so far sought not retribution and vengeance, like President Mugabe thinks the Iraq people cry for against their American invaders, but simple justice: the establishment of the guilt or otherwise of the perpetrators through due process of law, concrete steps by the state to address all the grievances over the atrocities such as compensating victims, setting up institutional guarantees to ensure that “never again” shall state apparatus be used to commit atrocities.
As things stand, Zimbabwe as a post-colony has not been able to purge itself of the pernicious ideas that preceded, flourished during, and survived the Gukurahundi genocide. That is why the likes of Garande have no qualms with accusing PF Zapu cadres and other activists, falsely and in bad faith, of “tribalism” without any scintilla of evidence.
These baseless accusations fit well in the now familiar pattern of false accusations that precede atrocious episodes that have become the hallmark of the lived experience of the marginalised or excluded “other” (subaltern) within the Zimbabwean body-politic. It is, therefore, not surprising that Garande alleges that Mduduzi Mathuthu “opens up a war-time Zanu /Zapu debate over control of electoral constituencies.” This “opening up” cliché is typical of those who shy away from frankly confronting their kith and kin’s past, especially one marked by active or passive involvement in atrocities.
Garande’s reductionist logic impels him to suppose that arguments about race and ethnicity are “two entirely different arguments”, even though anyone with a rudimentary understanding appreciates that race and ethnicity are social cleavages of inclusion and exclusion, with the potential of reflections on one being capable of illuminating analysis of the other. For example, African-American writer James Baldwin, in an influential essay on the struggle against racial injustice in America in the 1960s, published under the title The Fire Next Time, made a timeless observation on the meaning, to the victim, of the lived experience of confronting and surviving injustice.
Baldwin put it thus: “I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and, indeed, no church – can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakeable”.
Any Gukurahundi victim or survivor, and even victims of the current political crisis, on reading Baldwin’s quoted insight, can quickly understand that Baldwin expressed something about their own lived experience. But that cannot be for Garande who knows something about “a-priori assumptions”, “synchronised unidirectional way”, “entirely important emic term”, “strategic essentialisms”, “old barbarian clannishness”, “sham appeal to universal morality in denouncing oppression or discrimination”, “out of keeping with our African moral heritage or even our Roman-Dutch and customary notions of law and socio-legal organisation”.
To conclude, Garande’s pseudo-postmodern theorising entails a strategic simplification; a process through which brute “facts” are refined. But as a process, it is heavily influenced by the proponent’s (Garande’s) own preferences, predilections and perceived interests, expectations, personal experiences and memories.
Postmodernism entails the use of indeterminacy as a critical technique, and it employs obscurity as a well-acknowledged substitute for plainly expressed language. One typical postmodern strategy is, as one exponent says, “to use as many suffixes, prefixes, hyphens, slashes, underlinings and anything else your computer can dish out”, then hope that someone will not actually ask what you are talking about, in which case you can always reply with more postmodern-speak.
It may not be much of a surprise if, on asking Garande what exactly he is trying to say in his article, one gets a salvo of postmodern speaks in response. Something like: "The instability of your question leaves me with several contradictorily layered responses whose interconnectivity cannot express the logocentric coherency you seek. I can only say that reality is more uneven and its (mis)representations more untrustworthy than we have time here to explore.”
That’s vintage post-modern speak of the Garande sort. He may have intended to make a meaningful contribution to the ongoing debate, but in trying to discourse at the level of theoretical conceptions, ended up getting himself entangled in a swirling vortex of contradictory arguments.
Lucas Nkomo is a Zimbabwean barrister based in Australia. He can be contacted on e-mail:

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