OPINION – ‘Give me the roses while I live’: Time we honoured the living, and also not just politicians

(pic: T. Mukwazhi/AP)

By Mike Murenzvi

In Zimbabwe, when we hear the word hero, it invokes two things: the person is deceased and they contributed to the liberation struggle.

Over the past 25 years, there have been questions over who is a hero, national or otherwise, and what criteria is used to confer hero status upon a deceased member of society. On this, we must seek guidance from the National Heroes Act [Chapter 10:16] which says in section 3:

“Where the President considers that any deceased person who was a citizen of Zimbabwe has deserved well of his country on account of his outstanding, distinctive and distinguished service to Zimbabwe, he may, by notice in the Gazette, designate such person as a national, provincial or district hero of Zimbabwe.”

There ends the legal position of how hero status is bestowed.

It’s the politics

It has become standard, in both previous and current administrations, to hear announcements of hero status conferment preceded by the following phrase: “Following a meeting of the ZANU-PF Politburo, the President has declared [Deceased’s Name] a National or Provincial or Liberation War Hero.” Our increasingly politically polarised environment has politicised the conferment of hero status, and while there is nothing wrong in the President consulting on what status to accord upon the deceased, the politics has overtly overshadowed an illustrious honour.

This political decision has seen influential liberation war actors, nationalists and civilians omitted from receiving the highest national honour in death. These names include, but are not limited to, the following luminaries:

  •  Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, a veteran nationalist and founding ZANU member who broke away and founded ZANU-Ndonga
  • Enoch Dumbutshena, the country’s former Chief Justice. He was the country’s first black chief justice, and his decisions were often critical of Robert Mugabe and his Government. Dumbutshena also unsuccessfully competed in the 1995 presidential elections
  • Canaan Banana, the country’s first President, convicted of sodomy and related crimes in 1999
  • Morgan Tsvangirai, veteran trade unionist, and founding leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, the country’s main opposition party
  • Thenjiwe Lesabe, another veteran nationalist and gender rights activist, who left ZANU-PF to join ZAPU.

From the point that the politics of these individuals differed from ZANU-PF and its ideals, the denial of their national hero status was sealed.

In awarding national hero status to the late musician, Oliver Mtukudzi, President Emmerson Mnangagwa broke away from the beaten path of only high-ranking ZANU-PF members or veterans of the liberation struggle being recipients of such honour.

Give me the roses while I live

Like many countries, Zimbabwe has recognition systems for both the living and the dead. The works of the living, both military and civil are recognised through the Honours and Awards Act [Chapter 10:11]. The civilian honours, listed in descending order of rank, are:

Each of these awards and medals has legislated specifics governing the criteria used to determine whether the intended recipient is worthy of it and the conditions and circumstances that can lead to its revocation. The physical appearance and how and where to wear it are also specified, as well as the associated financial reward or gratuity that comes with it.

These honours and awards, among others, are issued regularly to active and former military personnel by the president but rarely are they bestowed upon civilians.

On independence eve, 2005, Mugabe posthumously honoured a number of veteran nationalists and national heroes under the orders of the Star of Zimbabwe and Great Zimbabwe. Inducted into the Royal Order of Munhumutapa were five leaders of frontline states that contributed to Zimbabwe’s independence, including Zambia’s founding president, Kenneth Kaunda.

To my knowledge, only the late Dr Solomon Mutswairo, the literary icon who penned the words to our national anthem, was awarded the Order of the Star of Zimbabwe as a living Zimbabwean civilian. Why there has not been other living recipients of these honours, only the current and former presidents know.

Dear President, please may you make use of the Honours and Awards system for recognition of living civilians across the broad spectrum of our nation. It means more to be honoured in life than in death.

In 1932, the Carter Family left us these wise words in their song, Give Me The Roses While I Live:

Wonderful things of folks are said/

When they have passed away/

Roses adorn the narrow bed/

Over the sleeping clay

Give me the roses while I live/

Trying to cheer me on/

Useless are flowers that you give/

After the soul is gone

Kind words are useless when folks lie/

Cold in a narrow bed/

Don’t wait till death to speak kind words/

Now should the words be said

Let us not wait to do good deeds/

Till they have passed away/

Now is the time to sow good seeds/

While here on earth we stay

What is a hero?

In his song, Andinzwi, the late Oliver Mtukudzi asked, “What is a hero? Do you have to die to be a hero, here?” He lamented these fundamental questions after the death of renowned actor and musician, Safirio “Mukadota” Madzikatire.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s personal opinions and should in no way be interpreted to represent the views of any organisations that he is associated or connected with