Book on Zimbabwe's War of Liberation Sparks Heated Debate

Zimbawean President Robert G. Mugabe attends a ceremony last month organized by his office staff to mark his 82nd birthday. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

At the center of a debate in Zimbabwe is a memoir by Fay Chung, "Reliving the Second Chimurenga," which draws on her memories of Zimbabwe's struggle for liberation. To some, it is bold, candid and brave, to others, inaccurate, judgmental of the opposition and uncritical of the present political establishment in Zimbabwe.

In the book, Hung narrates her origins among the tiny Chinese minority in Rhodesia, her early radicalization, her participation in the liberation struggle and her tenure at the Zimbabwean Ministry of Education. She details the role of education in the Zimbabwean refugee camps of Zambia and Mozambique both in preparing for independence during the 1970's and in its consolidation in the 1980's. Her book concludes with an assessment of events until the end of 2004.

The most compelling sections of the memoir are not about education, a portfolio Chung has long been associated with, but about the ZANU-PF's formative years. It is awe striking to read descriptions of dissenting views in the party and of how they were dealt with. Apparently, the author seemed unfazed by the events and measured the responses as successes in terms of loyalty.

Her account is not an unembellished apology for the ruling party. She can be explicit and frank about the party's corruption, violence and misrule both in and out of power. However, she is consistently dismissive of the alternatives. This includes other possible leaders like Sithole and Joshua Nkomo in the 1970's and the Movement for Democratic Change's more recent challenge to one-party rule. Despite everything, she considers the recent land seizures legitimate and rational in essentials (although poorly executed), a return to the basic objectives of the liberation struggle.

The book has riled many Zimbabweans. Judging by the responses the book attracted at its recent launch in Harare, readers are questioning some of its details: that there was rampant homosexuality in the township in the 70's, that then ZANU leader Herbert Chitepo was an ally of Ian Smith (prime minister of Rhodesia before 1980), and that there was a mass exodus of ZIPA members to join ZANU during the d├ętente period.

"I think there are some details and issues the book raises which lack facts and are inaccurate," says Wilfred Mhanda, a war veteran. He is director of the Zimbabwe Liberators Platform, which was formed by war vets in 2000 in protest at the anarchy that accompanied the farm seizures.

Mhanda says the arrests of ZIPA members in Mozambique in 1977 were ordered by Robert G. Mugabe, not by Josiah Tongogara as the book claims, when Mugabe persuaded his host President Samora Machel that his own ZANLA commanders were plotting against him.

Mhanda, a one-time ZANLA commander, spent six months in jail in Mozambique, when he and 50 other commanders were arrested. He was later transferred to a detention camp, where he spent another two years. The ZANLA commanders were finally released after a representative of the British Labor Party took up their case.

Margaret Dongo, a war veteran who later opposed Mugabe's rule, lauds Chung efforts to publish a memoir that highlights details of the war.

The book is a wake-up call to us who have been on the front to correct our history," says Dongo.

Chung avows that the drive to write the memoir was prompted by the fact that no has dared to write about the history of the war, a fact that has only left children today wondering what really happened during the liberation struggle era. (A notable exception: "Echoing Silences," a novel by Alexander Kanengoni.)

Chung grew up in a Chinese family in what was then Rhodesia in the 1950's and 60's. She studied education and literature, and became a lecturer at the University of Zambia in the early 1970's. In Zambia, she joined the Zimbabwe National Union (ZANU), and took part in the radicalization of the nationalist uprising, which led to Zimbabwe's independence in 1980. In the 1980, she worked in various capacities in the Ministry of Education. She was Chief of the Education Cluster at Unicef 1993-98, and the first director of the Unesco International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa 1998-2003.

Her memoirs give an inside view of the divisions within ZANU during the late 1970's. She witnessed the change of leadership from Sithole to Mugabe, experienced the tensions between politicians and military leaders, as well as the rise and fall of the vashandi movement, which tried to change the direction of ZANU in a more socialist direction. She also reflects on the on-going crisis in Zimbabwe. She regrets the violence of the past, but is critical of the new democratic opposition and supports Robert Mugabe's "Third Chimurenga" as a return to the objectives of land reform and economic justice, which she sees as the "heart blood" of the liberation struggle.

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