Saturday, August 08, 2009


7 August 2009

Dear Friends.

It is common to all cultures to honour the dead. There was one death in the UK this week that united the British nation in respect for Harry Patch, the 111 year-old last remaining survivor of the horrors of the 'War to end all wars': World War 1. Watched by thousands of ordinary people he was buried in the ancient Wells Cathedral in Somerset. At his own request, the theme of Harry Patch's funeral service was Peace and Reconciliation.

I was reminded of our own three days of National Healing in Zimbabwe and the sad fact that very little peace or reconciliation seems to have come out of that. But it was another event in the UK that reminded me even more strongly of the necessity for people to come together in genuine - and I stress genuine- reconciliation and true repentance if there is to be forgiveness for the crimes of the past. This case involved one very different individual, a convicted criminal, Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber who has been in prison for the past thirty years. He is an old man now, in fact he will be 80 years old tomorrow and some weeks ago he was finally granted parole by the prison authorities. In stepped the British Home Secretary, one Jack Straw, and reversed the parole order on the grounds that Ronnie Biggs had not shown 'true repentance' for his crime and still represented a threat to society. It was hard to see how a sick 80-year old man could be a threat to anyone, though it has to be admitted that it's not unknown for African octogenarians to constitute a considerable threat to the lives and liberty of their fellow citizens! Today, Jack Straw reversed his decision, 'on compassionate grounds' he said and Ronnie Biggs will be a free man as he celebrates his 80th birthday tomorrow. He has had three strokes and is currently in hospital suffering from pneumonia so the celebrations are likely to be somewhat muted, I'd say.

In Zimbabwe this week, another octogenarian, the Vice President Joseph Msika died and will no doubt be yet another 'Hero' for burial in Heroes Acre. Not much repentance for past crimes there either; none of the obituaries I have read seem to have much good to say for the late Joseph Msika; his 'foam-flecked' rhetoric as it was described being for the most part nothing but racist ranting with such expressions as 'Whites are not human' being among the more memorable. I remember writing a piece for the Daily News at the time wondering whether Msika had actually confused the two words, 'human' and 'humane' but whatever he meant, his intention was clearly to stir up racial hatred. And no doubt, another octogenarian will have more of the same to say when he addresses the faithful at Msika's burial ceremony in Heroes Acre. We are all too familiar with Robert Mugabe's hate-filled rhetoric. attacking whites, the west and all his other imagined enemies at national occasions. What we can be certain of is that he will have little to say about genuine peace and reconciliation. I hear that the Herald and the ZBC/TV are being urged - or is it ordered - to use his full titles when mentioning the Great Man. Perhaps they think that will make us respect and honour him more?

I thought about that as I watched the video of Harry Patch when he visited the war graves in France. There he sat, this frail old man in his wheelchair, head bowed, surrounded by the graves of thousands slaughtered in the 'War to end all wars.' The old man had just one simple question "What did they die for?" he asked and I wondered. Does the 86 year old Robert Mugabe, the Supreme Leader as they would have us call him, never ask himself the same question? The 20-30 thousand Ndebele victims of Gukuruhundi, the 70 thousand innocent victims of Murambatsvina whose lives were virtually destroyed, the ongoing starvation caused by his so-called Land Reform and the brutality still being meted out against all his perceived enemies. What are they dying for? We all know the answer: to keep Robert Mugabe in power. But I wonder too, if each time he presides at yet another funeral of one of his own contemporaries, the 86 year-old Mugabe is not reminded of his own mortality. The Great Hero of the Liberation Struggle will also die one day, in spite of all his cunning, not even he cannot escape the Grim Reaper. And what will his epitaph be? In Shona culture the 'friend of the corpse', the sawhira is there to make the people smile as they remember the deceased, to ease the pain of their loss. What sawhira, I wonder, will give testimony to Robert Mugabe's goodness and humanity, to his true heroism?

More reminders of human mortality from another continent and in another culture but very relevant. In one particularly moving moment at Harry Patch's funeral, an old friend turned and addressed the old man's flag-draped coffin directly and spoke the simple words, "An ordinary man who showed us true heroism. At long last, Harry, you can rest in peace." Cultures are not so different, I think.

Yours in the (continuing) struggle PH.



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