- Zimbabwe’s war veterans: from demobilisation to re-mobilisation1
In 1993, I read Charles Samupindi’s novel Pawns.2 What caught my attention from the onset was the striking cover picture of the novel. The picture depicts an ex-combatant (ie a ZANLA or ZIPRA figure who had fought against the Smith regime), standing on a chess-board like a real pawn but with his two legs astride and each foot firmly covering the black square of the chessboard. The picture is a searing split depiction of, on the left-hand side, a combatant holding an AK-47 in complete typical combatant’s regalia, a long and seemingly tight jacket, a hat and Wellington boots. However, on the right-hand side, the same figure is vividly portrayed as a pauper whose hair is now unkempt, wearing a tattered shirt and long pants with a string for a belt, barefooted and the hand opening a garbage bin, presumably to look for food or anything to keep body and soul together. Indeed, the novel is the story of ‘a schoolboy … driven by a sense of personal shame and futility to join the movement and is sent to Mozambique’. While ‘waiting for training, waiting through hunger, boredom, disease, he watches the evolution of the struggle’. He recalls the events of the war ‘through the intensity of vividly remembered personal experiences’, in which he reveals a hotchpotch of mixed emotions ‘dilemma, loss, pain, confusion, anger, noise and the raw nakedness of combat’. In light of these ‘disturbing’ memories, Samupindi poses three fundamental questions, ‘…Was the war worth fighting for? What has happened to the combatants? Who will validate, who will acknowledge the memories that they carry with them?’ It is these interconnected questions that propelled me to think about documenting a brief factual account of what I perceived then to be the ‘ordeal of rehabilitation’ as demobilised combatants, ie those who, for one reason or another, had not had the fortune of being co-opted and reintegrated into the newly formed [End Page 122] Zimbabwe National Army (a motley mix of the former Rhodesian Army, ZANLA and ZIPRA forces). Had ex-combatants been used as political ‘pawns’ as the title and, indeed, the picture of Samupindi’s novel seemed to suggest?
As the deepening predicament of unemployed former liberation war combatants – powerfully encapsulated in a Moto magazine headline title: ‘“Son of the soil” during the armed struggle; “squatter” after independence’ – received widespread media coverage, it dawned on me that nobody had as yet attempted to chronicle the brief history of the war veterans’ history, ie 13 years after independence (Moto 71, 1988: 6). I argued in my article in Transformation 26 (1995) that this contradiction – namely that freedom fighters had been extolled as ‘sons of the soil’ by the nationalist leadership during the struggle were now consigned to the category of ‘squatters’ after independence – absolutely represented ‘some of the ambiguities of democracy and indeed to some extent the futility of independence’. I opined that this contradiction seemed to have become ‘part of the inherent nature of national liberation movements in Africa and elsewhere. During the struggle for independence the masses are mobilised by the nationalist bourgeois leadership and called upon to make supreme sacrifices to liberate the country. But as soon as they have fulfilled their historical mission of leading the bourgeois to power, they are ungraciously discarded’ (1995:31). On the basis of these claims, I set out to critically and chronologically explore the demobilisation process and its impact on ex-combatants, and examined their expectations during and after the course of demobilisation as well as the repertoire of strategies they devised to rescue themselves from this quagmire.
I concluded this article by cautiously noting that ‘Zimbabwe should perhaps consider itself fortunate that the disenchanted war veterans did not consider destabilisation as a means of twisting the arm of the government to compel it to help them in their rehabilitation into civilian life’ (1995:44). Their potential for destabilising the country had to be borne in mind for, as Motumi and Mckenzie would later write, ‘Demobilisation which fails to provide for the social integration of ex-combatants poses a...