COLUMN | Zimbabwe: A nation of collective amnesia

2017: National Archives of Zimbabwe Principal Audiovisual Archivist, Felizarda Mudzaki: The institution has been working to digitize analogue films and TV programmes from the 1960s. (Pic: Embassy of Switzerland in Zimbabwe)

By Chris Kabwato

Some Zimbabweans on social media have a penchant for posting photographs and videos from Rhodesia and commenting on how ‘things worked then’. Legions gush with nostalgic appreciation for those ‘good old days’.

‘Buses ran on time, the city was clean, the police wore proper uniforms, they were professional,’ they say. It is an interesting form of revisionism by people who do not need to have lived in Rhodesia to know what it was like to be black in the cruel and segregated settler colony.

But things worked, insist our revolutionaries, armed with data and a smartphone. Things worked for who? Who lived where? Working for who? Earning what? Owning what? What were the grievances of the youth that took up arms in the 1970s?

Tales of Santa Claus in chimneyless houses

I used to tell my children about Santa Claus and his scheduled journey from the North Pole – snow, sledge and reindeers. I even bought a toy of the ridiculous pot-bellied pink man that would sing ceaselessly:

You better watch out!

You better not cry!

You better not pout

I am telling you why

Santa Claus is coming to town.

One day my youngest confronted me, ‘Daddy, you lied! There is no Santa.’ I had thought that the fictional existence of the man in red was in the interest of my little ones.

I was not being very different to the avuncular Ministry of Information Permanent Secretary Willard Chiwewe who, addressing a media freedom seminar in 1999, declared in a hysterical voice: “If the truth will kill my mother, to hell with the truth.” At that time the political atmosphere was charged after the arrest and torture of Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka for publishing a story alleging a failed coup plot.

I still wonder whether Zimbabwe was the mother that did not deserve to hear the truth.

Once upon a time facts mattered

Old hacks fondly remember the halcyon days of journalism when fierce editors strode the newsrooms striking fear and admiration from journalists and cub reporters. Those hard-drinking, pugnacious characters had one key motto borrowed from British journalist CP Scotts’ 1921 editorial: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” They checked and re-checked with a journalist on their sources, their notes of an interview, and triangulated with other sources. When they made a call, it was most likely a good one.

These editors knew that the relationship between politicians and journalists had to be a tense one at most times: one group had so much to conceal, the other group had so much to reveal. If you read the book or watch the film All the President’s Men, about the 1974 Watergate scandal that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon, you can see the rigour with which Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee managed his two journalists, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, as they probed the burglary into the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

I remember more than two decades ago when I wrote a column for the Financial Gazette and Francis Mdlongwa was the editor-in-chief. For a print newspaper, deadlines were deadlines and there were internal processes before your article could be signed off. Calling to plead for some more time was not something you could easily get away with. The chilling question would be asked: “Is the article coming or not?” After all, lore says that there are two types of journalists: one who brings the story and the other who brings excuses.

When did the rain begin to beat us?

I have always wondered why it is that other societies have an extensive and nuanced understanding of their histories and yet Zimbabweans have such glaring gaps in their grasp of how anything (music, politics, economics) came to be. I can read online an article about a 1938 FA Cup final that was contested by Preston North End and Huddersfield Town at Wembley Stadium.

Preston, losing finalists the previous year, won by a single goal. This was their second win in the competition. After 29 minutes of extra time it was still 0–0 and BBC commentator Thomas Woodrooffe said “if there’s a goal scored now, I’ll eat my hat”. Seconds later, Preston were awarded a penalty, from which George Mutch scored the winning goal. Woodrooffe kept his promise, though it was one made of cake and marzipan.

A British journalist will narrate a match played well before their birth in a nuanced way down to the boots, the rain, the mud, the inside of the dressing room and all that. They can do that because they have access to vast archives of statistics, photographs, audiovisual material, newspapers clippings available to them online and in their newsrooms.

There is tragic irony in the colonial district administrator and the missionary fundamentally disrupting African life and at the same time meticulously recording clan names, totems and oral histories when on the other hand the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) egregiously erases recorded programmes of the 1980s and 1990s to ‘reuse’ the tapes. It is the height of moral bankruptcy – a treasonous assault on the memory of a people.

What witchcraft is that informs our inability to put value on record-keeping, archiving and oral histories? The Audiovisual Section of the National Archives of Zimbabwe (NAZ) was the beneficiary of telecine equipment from the Japanese government in the early 1990s. That equipment, which has long been out of service, was used to clean film reels and to transfer film to video. Without this equipment, films, videos and audio tapes cannot be viewed and catalogued for researchers to access.

In 1998 the Rijksmuseum of the Netherlands offered to digitize the 16mm and 35 mm films of the National Archives of Zimbabwe. With the growing crescendo of noises on the motives of Europe by government officials, and to the frustration of NAZ senior staff, the deal did not come to fruition.

Meanwhile the little information that is available is little used as our political influencers vigorously twerk on the donor catwalk seeking the eye of ambassadors from the global north. Reading research reports and summing up is too onerous a task.

Narratives without facts, houses without foundations

The irony that is lost to our professional twerkers is how those in the global north excel in the preparation of policy briefs. These documents are, of course, heavily inflected with each country’s ideology but the purpose for such briefs is what is important. Let us take one example. Once a month a debate erupts on Zimbabwe’s social media on whether there are sanctions against the country and what impact, if any, those restrictions have on the economy. It is a Tower of Babel.

The Zimbabweans who have researched and written on the subject fold their arms and watch with amusement. They have reasoned that, in the intellectually barren topography of social media, it is best to keep one’s silence. And so, the monthly ritual continues triggered by whatever agenda is relevant at that moment.

Our individual responsibility

‘What is to be done?’ asked Comrade Lenin. Well, we all have an individual responsibility to tell the stories of our past to our children and whoever cares to listen. Afterall, we cannot wait for another 43 years for the recording and preservation of our histories. Once upon a time, African societies had griots – the oral historians of a family or a community or a nation hence the maxim ‘When an elder dies, a library burns down.’

As James Baldwin says, ‘Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other and children cling to us.’