This week, people marked the deaths of two participants in the southern African liberation struggles in distinctly different ways: one was hailed as a hero, the other as a villain.
As ANC stalwart Andrew Mlangeni was buried yesterday amid adulation from across South Africa, many Zimbabweans were commemorating a life much less well-lived – that of Perence Shiri, Harare’s minister of agriculture.
Shiri, a former commander of the Air Force of Zimbabwe, was a long-time member of the inner circle of the Zanu-PF dictatorship which has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in April 1980. But he will be remembered, with dishonour, for his role as commander of the notorious 5 Brigade of the Zimbabwe National Army, which carried out a mass slaughter of civilians in the southern province of Matabeleland in the early ’80s.
Estimates are that as many as 20 000 people died in the carnage, which lasted only a matter of months, in separate periods, in 1983 and 1984.
Most of the victims were Ndebele people whose main crime, in the eyes of the then government of Robert Mugabe, was that they were supporters of Joshua Nkomo and his Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (Zapu).
The rampage of 5 Bde – known as Gukurahundi (a Shona word meaning the wind which blows away the chaff before the rains) – was ordered by Mugabe’s Politburo, of which the current President Emmerson Mnangagwa was a prominent member as security minister.
The deaths of Mlangeni and Shiri are a reminder of the best and the worst of times in liberation in Africa. Mlangeni strove for nonracialism, unity and honest government … and spoke out firmly and often against the corruption enveloping the ANC. Shiri was the personification of the evils of tribalism executed by securocrats. There are sobering lessons to be learned from the lives of both men.
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