4 May 2017
Candour: an opinion piece by NQABA MATSHAZI
Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa is widely regarded as the person to succeed President Robert Mugabe in Zanu PF and maybe the country as well.
He is seen as a reformer, a person who has an ear to business and who knows what needs to be done to right economic wrongs, with such an endorsement coming from no less than former opposition legislator, David Coltart.
Mnangagwa’s supporters are willing to ignore rights violations he is accused of being at the forefront of in the 1980s because there is a realisation that after Mugabe, a strong leader is needed, who can hold the nation together at what could be a critical moment for the nation, and he is that kind of person.
But that is for Mnangagwa’s allies and rivals to debate, and I will not be dragged into that one.
What worries me though is Mnangagwa’s diction, the words he throws about loosely or in a calculated manner and they get me worried about the country’s future.
Just recently, he was quoted in the Sunday Mail describing the recent ructions in the ruling party as Zanu PF fumigating itself.
While this might seem like an innocuous statement, it carries a lot of symbolism, which could stoke unnecessary flames.
Let us rewind a little, in 2016, Mnangagwa threatened to sue NewsDay after a story was published sourced from a book by Coltart, where he likened dissidents to cockroaches and said the surest way of dealing with the pests was by using DDT, a deadly pesticide.
Mnangagwa denied ever uttering those words and threatened to sue.
Evidence, in the form of archived Chronicle newspaper articles from as way back as March 1985 attributed those words to Mnangagwa, then Security minister, during the Gukurahundi massacres.
Mnangagwa might not have thought about it then or now, but the precursor to unleashing violence on a people is by first dehumanising them and once that layer of them being human is removed, they are considered fair game.
In 1994, one of the worst genocides experienced on this planet unfolded in Rwanda, and at the centre of it, were hate radio campaigns that described one tribe as cockroaches, meaning they had to be exterminated and hundreds of thousands of people were killed.
As Rwandan writer, Kennedy Ndahiro wrote, when you call someone a cockroach, you strip them of their individuality and pity for them is stripped, meaning the next step is their removal.
Fast forward to last year, there were claims that Mnangagwa wanted to unseat Mugabe and in his defence, he said he had been with the President for years and would never dare do such a thing.
But again, in his defence, he went back to the cockroach analogy.
“I spent over 16 years sleeping outside protecting this man (pointing at Mugabe) while he slept on a bed,” he was quoted as saying.
“I cannot then turn around and plan against him. I know there are cockroaches, who might want to fathom the idea of trying to remove him.
“My job is to defend him and if I catch one of the cockroaches, then I will crush them before informing the President because it is part of my job.”
Zanu PF factions can tear themselves apart – that is their problem – but the continuous use of the cockroach metaphor is a bit worrying considering that there are unexplained aspects of our history that we still need to deal with.
It is unfortunate that in wanting to deal with political adversaries, there is the easy refrain of reducing them to cockroaches, justifying the need to deal with them by any means.
Mnangagwa might have been figurative, but his choice of words is blood curdling and there is need for him to find other metaphors to use rather than this chilling one.
Right now Zimbabweans are up in arms after South African Police minister Fikile Mbalula said former Zimbabwean military personnel were responsible for crimes in that country.
Critics argue Mbalula’s statements could have the effect of fostering xenophobia, thus illustrating the power of words and the need for leaders to choose their vocabulary carefully.
Zimbabwe’s political terrain has been characterised by tension and violence for years, meaning leaders are doubly responsible for choosing their words carefully and responsibly.
Thus, it is difficult to look away when the Vice-President uses words like “fumigating” considering previous use of words like cockroaches and DDT.
Leaders may want to be dramatic in explaining how they will deal with their rivals, so they are seen as all powerful and all conquering, but our languages have more than enough metaphors that can be used, without resorting to words that dehumanise.
Mnangagwa may have meant that Zanu PF was cleansing itself, without any inferences, but with the country’s history, the choice of the word fumigation was ill-advised.
As Zimbabwe heads into the election season, it is important that politicians avoid dehumanising each other and referring to rivals as pests, as this could have the unintended consequence of precipitating violence.
Mnangagwa may not have meant any harm by referring to fumigation, but his utterances on cockroaches and fumigation, on one hand and the Rwandan genocide on the other, are still fresh in the mind for that statement to go unchallenged.