Art, censorship and Gukurahundi (Part Two)

kim_2_sungIn the first part of this article published in last weeks edition the writer laid out how Zanu (PF) has sought to impose its viewpoint and interpretation of history on the nation. Using the banning of Owen Masekos Gukurahundi exhibition the writer demonstrated how Zanu (PF) will not brook any other narrative that negates, chal

In this second segment the writer elaborates further how Zanu (PF)s Patriotic History programme has potential to not only curtail freedom of expression and the arts but would, if left unchallenged, eventually earn Zimbabwe the ignoble distinction of a country devoid of truth:

If outsiders were deliberately led to believe that Ndebele civilians were inextricably associated with a political insurgency, the non-combatant Matabeleland civilians themselves very quickly realised that they were victims of a political war where Zanu (PF) was primarily seeking to destroy its political opposition.

The term Gukurahundi means the first rains that wash away the chaff after the harvest, and many civilians took this to interpret themselves as the chaff or rubbish.

Their military tormentors confirmed this for them with both their actions and their words:??At rallies, commanders of the Fifth Brigade invariably expressed the conviction that all Ndebele were dissidents, and said their orders were to wipe out the people in the area.??

Testimony from a dissident, a person supposedly the direct target of this massive military operation, gives insight into the focus and function of the Fifth Brigade (also known as the Gukurahundi):??The Gukurahundi wasnt a good fighting unit. It was trained to reduce the population, it was just killing civilians.

Blunt and chilling

The Gukurahundi werent soldiers. Where do you see soldiers who sing when on patrol? They were looking for civilians, not other soldiers, so we would come across them singing and we would just take cover. Soon after, youd hear people crying in their homes…??

Robert Mugabe himself went so far as to identify the entire region civilians and dissidents as justifiable military targets. Donald Trelford, editor of the UK newspaper The Observer in 1984, recalled an interview that he had with Mugabe where he asked him whether he would ever consider a political solution to the Matabeleland issue rather than the military one.

Trelford describes Mugabes response to his question as blunt and chilling:??The solution is a military one. Their grievances are unfounded. The verdict of the voters was cast in 1980. They should have accepted defeat then The situation in Matabeleland is one that requires a change. The people must be reoriented.??

This is why the description and banning of Masekos images of the Gukurahundi as a tribal-based event has such potency in 2010.

If an acceptable tribal-based event is one where Patriotic History defines the Ndebele population as the enemy and Zanu (PF) as having moral right on their side, then it follows that an unacceptable tribal-based event is one that suggests the reverse where Ndebele civilians are portrayed as victims and Zanu (PF) as aggressors.??

Stanislaw Baranczak, a Polish poet, writer and literary critic argues that, The controllers of culture are by no means interested in eliminating expression altogether; on the contrary, they sponsor and promote it, provided it serves their goals.

The Patriotic History narrative codifies people like Maseko who dare to think beyond the boundaries established by Zanu (PF) as disloyal and unpatriotic.

Accordingly, Masekos work is not offensive to the Zanu (PF) censors because it is tribal-based: it offends because it contradicts the historical narrative they have spent nearly three decades insisting is the only acceptable version of events.?

The past is the past

The argument that the past is the past, and we should forget about it, put it to rest, and move forward is one view that often comes up in social discussions about Maseko and his exhibition. Those making this case, fail to understand especially in relation to the Gukurahundi that the past is very much a part of the today.

It exists in the memories of the people of Matabeleland, in the way it has influenced and shaped their lives since the events, but also in very real tangible ways. Just last recently a local newspaper reported that wild animals were digging up the bones of thirteen people massacred and buried in a mass grave in Lupane; and as the bones surfaced, so did the horror and the truth.?

The 13 are said to have been employed by the Forestry Commission when they were massacred. No explanation was given for the killing. The first to be gunned down were nine forestry workers. They were shot for no reason. After that, we were told to bury them in shallow graves and their remains have remained there since.

Headman Sikhonzi Nyathi said the soldiers ordered the villagers to bury the nine bodies in one grave before they went on to indiscriminately shoot at four others. There was nothing that the villagers could do to resist the orders as they also risked being shot, Nyathi said. The villagers carried out the orders and buried them in one grave.??

Others have argued that while Masekos work is worthy and important, it is perhaps ill-timed given the context of a fragile Inclusive Government that has yet to fully implement the GPA a full two years on.

It begs the question: who decides when the time is right and on what grounds? Who is going to tell the artists, musicians, sculptors, poets and writers that they must suppress their impulses to create, or worse, to censor themselves by conforming to non-threatening art based on the terms and conditions dictated to Zimbabweans by the Zanu (PF) party???

There are many social, political and cultural events with the potential to rile Zanu (PF), all of them posing extra challenges for the power-sharing relationship: the constitutional outreach programme is just one of them, the anticipated referendum another.

Zimbabweans will be asked to participate, and asked to support specific positions, despite the fact that these moments make Zanu (PF) uncomfortable. For those who think now is not the time for freedom of expression among artists and cultural innovators, are we to assume that they consider freedom of expression today to only be important and timely when it confines itself to the political???

At the start of this article we asked whether it was possible that this diminution of freedom of expression to political freedom of expression continues to perpetuate the type of logic and socio-cultural thinking that has informed and controlled a Zimbabwean understanding of freedom of expression for decades.

Has Zanu (PF)s Patriotic History programme been so effective that some amongst us including members of former opposition parties and activists have unconsciously assimilated the view that the writing of Zimbabwean History with a capital H in 2010 should be exclusively and narrowly pre-occupied with the political?

Have they come to believe, as Zanu (PF) believes, that all other events and moments influencing historicity are irrelevant??

Implications for healing

Banning Masekos work has very troubling implications for national healing, reconciliation, and integration in Zimbabwe. One of the initial charges against Maseko (now dropped) was that his art caused offence to persons of a particular race, religion, etc.

The only ethnicity explicitly identified in Masekos work is that of the Ndebele victims of the Gukurahundi, and it is highly unlikely that they would be offended by his efforts to expose the truth.

Masekos work also clearly identifies those who are accountable for the crimes committed during this time: They are Mugabe, members of the political elite, and the Fifth Brigade. And while these individuals may be offended by this accusation, they, as a group of predominantly Shona people, do not constitute or represent all Shona people.?

Its worth remembering that Zanu (PF)s targeting of the Ndebele people in the 1980s had very negative consequences for integration: the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace report on the atrocities noted that the Fifth Brigade war hardened ethnic differences and struck at the root of peoples most cherished social and political identity. ?

It follows then that the casual blurring of the distinctions between the elite and all Shona people inferred from the initial charges against Maseko and the description of the art as a tribal-based event is tantamount to inflaming tensions between different groups in Zimbabwe.

How does this aid healing or integration in our country today??On the same day the government attempted to charge Maseko with publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the state, Patrick Chinamasa announced that he would be tabling a bill in parliament that would enable the Human Rights Commission to investigate human rights abuses.

But Chinamasas bill will have a get out of jail clause designed to protect the Zanu PF party:??This commission will not investigate the alleged violations which occurred before the enactment of the amendment number 19 unless the violations have continued after the enactment but anything that happened before they will not have power to investigate.??

This means that all human rights abuses committed before December 2008 will not be investigated it affects not only the Gukurahundi, but Murambatsvina, violence carried out in the farming communities over the last decade; the political violence that has accompanied every election, and the horrific glut of torture and violence that was at its worse in 2008.??

Art and history

Will there be a time when art that attempts to focus on these events will, like Masekos art, also be subject to censorship by the state?

How can art in Zimbabwe thrive if a swath of topics that make the government uncomfortable are declared no-go areas? And how can art in Zimbabwe be taken seriously if the first question asked of a challenging exhibition is Does this art conform to Patriotic History? instead of Is this art good???

It is a shame that almost all of the discussion pertaining to Masekos exhibition has been corralled by political imperatives. Zimbabwean artists work at a challenging interface between the social/cultural and the political; but as artists, they are also positioned within the broader discipline of art, a field unconstrained by national boundaries and rigid definitions of sovereignty.

The controversy surrounding Masekos exhibition has effectively cast him as a political activist and fails to give due recognition to the fact that he is also, quite simply, an artist.??

Baranczak, writing about the impacts of communist control on artists, argues that an artists self-restraint is one step further on from state censorship. He calls this progressive censorship; it occurs when an artists creative compromise and self-correction renders the states open interference needless.??

Artists Charter

If artists and cultural innovators voluntarily restrain their creative impulses to avoid political acrimony, then there will be no need for Zanu (PF) to ban and censor works.

When this happens, Zanu (PF) will have deemed the cultural objectives of their Patriotic History project to be successful.

Rather than having freedom of expression, artistic expression will be carefully controlled leading to a further narrowing of the cultural field in Zimbabwe, with absolutely devastating consequences for the future of Art in Zimbabwe.?

On 4 August 2010, The Herald wrote about an Artists Charter for Zimbabwe, a document drafted by a group of artists for inclusion in the constitutional outreach discussions.

The charter asks that the rights and interests of the artists of Zimbabwe and their language communities be recognised and protected in the new constitution and it lists 11 points they want guaranteed.

Significantly, the word freedom is glaringly absent from the charter i.e. there are no demands for creative freedoms to be protected. The closest the charter comes to referring to freedom of expression is when it recognises the right of every citizen to enjoy the arts in their diverse expressions.

And despite the fact that censorship is a massive threat to artistic creativity and expression, the word censorship is not even remotely referred to in the charter.??

It isnt possible to know exactly what informed the drafting of this charter, but the fact that the state-controlled media was happy to champion it is a sign that the guarantees it seeks do not threaten the Zanu (PF) patriotic project.

Do the limitations of the Artists Charter for Zimbabwe indicate that Zimbabwean artists are already sensitive to, and aware of, the need to conform to political imperatives that define artistic boundaries within Zimbabwe???

Masekos experience suggests that this is possibly true. Interviewed by SW Radio Africa on 14 September 2010, he commented on the artistic communitys reaction to his experience at the hands of the state:??I was surprised that the artists are the only community that has not really truly supported me. I dont know, maybe it is something to do with fear.

Maybe they are scared or worried that if they associate with me they might also get arrested. Artists are aware of how, whatever the outcome that can happen to me, can greatly affect them, but taking a stance of running away is not really a helpful one because whichever way they look at it they will still be greatly affected.??

Take action

Maseko is right. If the state is allowed to ban critical works that investigate and challenge the states role in history, and if they are allowed to intimidate and harass artists who dare to think beyond state-controlled boundaries, then all artists will find themselves unable to truly be artists in the fullest sense of the word.??

It is not only artists who will be affected. All of us are affected by this attitude to criticism. We need to ask ourselves if we really want to live in a country without truth. Do we really want to be a people whose identities and experiences are defined by the state?

Finally, we need to ask ourselves this important question: if artists are not allowed to express themselves freely, what makes us think that we will ever be allowed to express ourselves freely either???

The Board of Censors operates from within the Ministry of Home Affairs. Please e-mail The Honourable Theresa Makone, MDC-T, Co-Minister of Home Affairs, and ask her to immediately reverse the ban against Maseko’s art exhibition.?

Please also e-mail Senator David Coltart, Minister of Education, Sport and Culture, and ask him to do all he can to protect freedom of expression as it relates to art and culture. ?

Ask them both to prevent further persecution of the artist Maseko, for daring to question and tell the truth. ??

* This article was originally published on

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