A terrrible precedence of having endured and survived violence has become entrenched as a test of paying one’s political dues in Zimbabwe. Since independence in 1980, being able to say “I was actively in the liberation struggle, I was imprisoned/abused” has been a way of proving one’s unassailable “struggle credentials.”
It became a way of silencing, and even threatening, those who could not claim a similar struggle pedigree. So valuable a currency for all kinds of things did this become in Zimbabwe that many faked stories of their liberation war-era exploits, thereby cheapening the very “commodity” whose value they sought to benefit from.
Claimed struggle credentials became a way of showing how seasoned and tough one was. They could be used to get or keep jobs, government contracts and many other “fruits of independence.” They were a license to impunity in many situations of wrong-doing. They became an acceptable substitute for competence in many cases. The war veteran, regardless of how dubious his or her struggle or job-competency credentials, in many cases became untouchable.
There are many manifestations of this. Elections have been dutifully held regularly in Zimbabwe, but if the results are or threaten to be “incorrect,” the democratic process can be thwarted with “we are the liberators of this country, we fought and suffered for it, we will not be removed.” Any criticism from western countries can be dismissed with “we suffered under and fought you to bring democracy to this country, you have no right to speak against us.”
This suffering justifies present-day violence against those like the MDC who would dare to challenge “the liberators who suffered for this country under the yoke of racist colonialism.” I believe the contempt of Mugabe & Co. for the MDC as “agents of Britain and imperialism” is genuinely held by them, and by many others. As such, no measures against them are thought to be unjustified. If anything, the thinking may be “we are only beating and torturing you, but we went through much worse during the liberation struggle against the white, you should feel lucky! How dare you be so ungrateful as to actually challenge us, and with the approval/support of those who caused us so much misery!”
A special respect for “war veterans” may not be unique to Zimbabwe, but certainly it has been bastardized. I see a perpetuation of this kind of thinking of having “suffered” as a special painful honour that entitles one to special privileges during or after “the struggle.” Even in today’s bruised, battered and divided MDC, I predict that the horrific images of the police torture of many of the party’s leading lights will be used by some of them to claim such privileges to power, within the party or to the “fruits” of “the struggle” should they ever become the governing party. They will use “where were you when we were being beaten and bruised so horrifically?” against any criticism, just as Mugabe & Co. partly use their liberation-era credentials as a silencing club against critics today.
Additionally, the fact that the Tsvangirai faction of the MDC suffered much worse physical abuse at the hands of the state than that of Mutambara is sure to further fuel suspicions and drive a wedge between them. The former will claim a type of “struggle” superiority and seniority from having borne the brunt of the state’s abuse, whether the differential treatment by the state was by diabolically clever divide-and-rule design or not.
This will only serve to deepen all kinds of societal resentments that lurk just below the facade of any quiet civility. However soon Zimbabwe’s immediate pain comes to an end, and no matter what declarations of “putting the past behind us” are made, the country’s long, insufficiently acknowledged history of violence will haunt the society in negative ways for a long time to come.