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Wounds: Open, closed and healed
March 21, 2013

Zimbabwe is probably unique among nations in having not just one but three government ministers responsible for “national healing”. This should be a hopeful indicator that wounds suffered will not be left to fester any longer – but the “organ” which they administer has so far failed to find a viable means to make progress to that end. Even the mandate of the Organ of National Healing was subject to acrimonious political dispute, as there was no genuine agreement on how recent a wound needed to be to qualify for healing. This situation of stalemate was to be expected, as long as major perpetrators of abuses continued to hold power as part of an imposed and artificial “Government of National Unity”. Experience from elsewhere teaches us that only when perpetrators have been dislodged from control of state power can justice and healing take place.1 However, the situation in Zimbabwe is complicated by the fact that those very abusers themselves claim also to be the victims of historical violations of their rights. Confusing and complex as it may be, the need for healing intensifies and at some point in the future it must be met. The fact is that Zimbabweans have suffered many injuries over the past hundred and twenty-five years – a time spanning at least five generations. And the truth is that most of these injuries have created wounds - physical, material and spiritual - which have never properly healed. The cataclysm of conquest during the last decade of the 19th century affected all Zimbabweans in one way or another – through loss of family members, loss of access to a livelihood, loss of sovereign control and loss of collective and individual dignity. Land seizures continued almost throughout the colonial occupation, with the majority of families being evicted from the land which they considered theirs, some as late as the 1960’s. The Tonga people of the Zambezi Valley experienced the bitterness of removal late in the day, but the total destruction of their traditional environment and their livelihoods was more precipitous, complete and traumatic than for many others.

These injustices created wounds which gradually faded for some but the dream of restitution remained, and eventually, in the absence of any peaceful resolution, the response of Zimbabweans was to launch a war of liberation as an instrument to correct injustices. It eventually succeeded in its goal of regaining sovereignty for Zimbabweans, but on a completely different basis from which it had been exercised three generations earlier. Inevitably with violence being used to try to correct injustices, more wounds were inflicted and suffered during that war, on all sides, some at the hands of comrades. And in the aftermath, instead of peace and healing, ZANU PF in power has inflicted further wounds - during Gukurahundi, during Murambatsvina, during election violence in every election it has contested, and during land seizures which purported to correct dispossessions, often violent, of the colonial period. Violence has been perpetrated throughout our history and it remains in the consciousness of adults and children, and is passed from one generation to the next.

How have Zimbabweans survived with all these festering wounds? What happens when a person or a people with a collective identity is wounded, either physically or metaphorically? A wound may remain open – in such a case the individual victim who does not die will continue to live with an extreme disability. Or, a wound may close – the skin regrows to cover the damage, but the pain and some debilitating consequences remain, hampering the full recovery and the enjoyment of life; the person lives with the effects for the rest of his days. Or, a wound may heal. In such a case scars will certainly remain, but the deep pain is overcome by the growth of healthy tissue to replace the damaged one, and the individual will be capable of living a productive life. Those with unhealed wounds – whether open or closed, physical or spiritual – may be bitter, resentfu l, filled with hatred and a desire for revenge, or alternatively completely disempowered, victims, unable to direct their own lives in productive ways. Whichever the outcome, the potential of the people and the nation is hobbled, bound by chains, and the propensity for retaliatory violence remains. We must then raise the question: can we as a nation heal such wounds to prevent them becoming a negative force leading us towards a violent future?

The healing of physical wounds is only the beginning. The healing of the material and spiritual is a much more complex matter. The loss of livelihoods, the loss of control over one’s life and pride in one’s identity and self-expression are not so easily mended. But with determination it is possible, even if it is going to be very difficult.

Three critical processes are necessary to bring healing : first, a public recognition that wrong has been done – an acknowledgment by the government and / or the individuals who perpetrated the offences of their guilt. Second, some form of punishment of the offender is required, or at least an accounting to the victims or survivors, an explanation or apology for the wrong-doing. Finally, compensation or restitution for the material damage suffered is necessary. For survivors of wounds inflicted, it is often not the physical wound that becomes most significant, but the spiritual wounds. And the spiritual wounds will not be healed without some form of justice meted out to the perpetrators and some balancing of the material losses.

But what about those who suffered their losses generations ago? Some would not take the descendants’ grievances seriously, but it is important to pay attention. The governments which inflicted them no longer exist. They never acknowledged their wrong-doing, individuals and institutions have not apologised or been punished. In accordance with the Lancaster House agreement, the independent government did not attempt to deal with this in their early years in office; nor did they treat it as urgent a decade later. The restitution of material loss was not fulfilled for the vast majority. The highly partisan compensation funds for war victims were so corruptly administered that this form of restitution has unfortunately lost all credibility. Eventually, rather than handling it as a matter of healing, government allowed and encouraged the forces of resentment and bitterness to dominate in bringing a measure of material restitution through the seizure of land from the owners of what was appropriated by others generations ago. The majority of those thus deprived were not even descendants of the original appropriators, even though one might claim that they had benefited nevertheless from the political economy of the colonial period.

Unfortunately, during this land appropriation, political motives overtook any aim to heal, to correct the historic injustices by providing restitution. Instead, lingering grievances were cleverly manipulated to serve politicians’ desire to retain power. There are several reasons why the seizure of land can hardly be considered to have contributed to restoring that balance of justice and material losses and healed the nation: firstly, the manner in which it took place enabled only a small minority of those who originally suffered losses to gain restitution2, thus leaving out the vast majority; secondly, those from whom land was taken were not the original perpetrators, even though they may have been indirect beneficiaries; thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the violence with which it took place created more victims with open wounds; furthermore, the destruction of the entire economy which ensued erased the livelihoods and social supports of literally millions, producing a nation of impoverished destitutes. Evidence from the redistribution patterns shows that we have in addition perpetuated the social divisions between those with more land and those with less,3 and inevitably those with ZANU PF connections were the main beneficiaries.

Those who still claim that national healing must take account of wounds suffered as far back as the 19th century must explain what wounds they want to heal, and how, if their stance is not simply to be dismissed as political posturing. Those who insisted that all appropriated land must be reclaimed have shown no interest in the wounds of the Tonga people; their lands cannot be reclaimed, but surely some material restitution could have been considered. In addition to those crimes of colonial expropriation, atrocities by both sides in the liberation war have never been dealt with, and yet they left deep spiritual and material wounds. If anyone has a workable plan for the just handling of these problems, and the genuine healing of those wounds, let them come forward.

What we all know is that far more recent wounds are still festering and need attention if we are to progress as a nation. These are the wounds inflicted over the past thirty years by our own sovereign government and its party and security institutions, against fellow citizens who sought to exercise their constitutional right to hold a different political allegiance. Many of the perpetrators as well as direct victims are still alive, and healing can indeed be achieved if we have the moral and political will. For years, survivors of the atrocities committed during Gukurahundi have been denied any form of healing by the flimsy excuse that to talk about their pain will simply “open old wounds”. Those who still feel the hurt and the losses thirty years later would not consider these to be “old” wounds. They are both fresh and unhealed and hence remain to some extent “ ;open”. Furthermore their perpetrators are in many cases known, and even prominent within government and its institutions. Isn’t it ironic that some of the same people who refuse to acknowledge these wounds want to talk about healing for wounds suffered generations ago? It is indeed difficult to take them seriously.

A survivor of Gukurahundi cannot be healed when he sees the chief perpetrator of those atrocities enjoying high rank in Zimbabwe’s military hierarchy, completely unmoved by the wounds he inflicted and completely free of any opprobrium, let alone punishment for his crimes. A survivor of election violence of 2008 cannot be healed when her torturer or the murderer of her husband walks free in the community, even taunting his victim’s family about the impunity he enjoys, being protected by powerful individuals. Both these survivors face material losses, often having been deprived of property, employment, physical health, integrity of family and access to any economic resources, not to mention their civil rights to freedom of expression and association. And their tormentors even appear to have been rewarded for what they have done. Healing in our nation can only become a reality when those who inflicted recent wounds, both government and identified individuals, acknowledge that what they did was wrong; individuals must be publicly called to account, and some form of justice must be seen to be done. Murderers, whether of masses or of individuals, cannot be allowed to remain walking within communities, enjoying impunity and even affluent lifestyles while their victims’ families wallow in poverty or languish in enforced exile. And following on from the acknowledgement and the accounting of the perpetrators must come some form of material restitution to enable survivors to pursue lives of dignity. Then we will know that healing is taking place and the wounds will not come back to create new discords for future generations.

Our national healing organ has never been able, since its formation after the creation of the Government of National Unity, to promote any genuine healing. Resistance is created by those who perpetrated much of the post-Independence violence and who are failing to take the first step of acknowledging their own wrong-doing, seeking rather to deflect attention to wounds inflicted before Independence. They believe they will avoid responsibility because they can, by inflicting more wounds, remain in control of government for an indefinite period. They could be right, but they may be wrong. The desperate need for genuine healing may continue, and if it does, those perpetrators should know that the grievances being nursed by those with open wounds may generate a new cycle of violence fuelled by hatred and resentment, in which they themselves will become the victims. They may not all di e in power. It is then to be hoped that those who replace them as the rulers of this nation do not venture on any new road of revenge violence, but rather initiate a genuine process, through which all can be healed, both victims and perpetrators. Only then can we map a road to a future free of more violence and national decay.

Healing remains a distant dream as we enter an election year which heralds fear of new atrocities, new wrongs and new wounds which would add to the already heavy burden of the past. We long for the day when perpetrators will admit they have offended, when they will be held accountable for their deeds, and even spiritual wounds can be healed as material restitution takes place. But that can only occur when perpetrators are no longer in control of government, are no longer granted impunity, can no longer hide behind state institutions but are forced to see and admit the horror of what they have done to their fellow human beings.


1 For example, in Argentina, where it took close to thirty years for mechanisms of justice and healing to be put in place.

2 Matondi estimates that 151,000 individuals (and by extension their families) out of a population of near 12 million gained access to land. Matondi, P, Zimbabwe’s Fast Track land Reform, Zed Books, London, 2012, p.56

3 The whole programme of land reform proceeded with parallel but unequal mechanisms for giving large farms (A2 model) to those already with means and smaller plots (A1 model) to those without.

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