30 May 2018

Zimbabwe: Return of the 'Commissar' and Some Thoughts On Writing


This time last year, I was finalising the writing of my book, "Death of the Commissar", which is a compendium of poetry that focuses on contemporary issues in Southern Africa, dually set in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The thoughts and reflections in "Death of the Commissar" range from the political - the succession politics in Zimbabwe and South Africa; to the social -- for example the death of a young woman called Karabo Mokoena, who died at the hands of her lover, the latter now doing time in the slammer not least because, for all the gruesomeness of his murder of the young beautiful woman, he remained remorseless and refused to testify in court.

The title of the book was enough to raise eyebrows, coming as it did during the particularly fractious period in the ruling party, Zanu-PF, the party of then President Robert Mugabe.

The Political Commissar of the party was Saviour Kasukuwere who identified with the so-called G40 group that also included Jonathan Moyo, Patrick Zhuwao and Grace Mugabe, then First Lady.

While these were the topmost public visages, Mugabe himself - in a Machiavellian way -- was the principal of the G40 and beneficiary of the dirty work that the aforementioned did on the political scene.

And boy, it was like real dirty work!

In the middle of 2017, G40 appeared unstoppable and had all the power in the world, including, and especially, the power to make trouble for their rivals -- and to humiliate them publicly.

Like we watched with utter horror presidential spokesman George Charamba being called out by Mrs Mugabe to be dressed down.

Yet, of course, we know that much of the berating was directed at the then Vice President of Zimbabwe who, in most uncharacteristic fashion that may yet tell of a man who is something between a stoic and a wise schemer, endured public lashes. We have read him somewhere this week saying he does not hold grudges -- which context of the above supports entirely.

So naming my book "Death of the Commissar" was something between bravery and folly. I can't remember whether I felt any brave or was foolishly naïve at the time.

Or perhaps it was genius.

The one thing that may have given me the confidence was that, on a literal scale, the story in the title was innocuous enough.

"Death of the Commissar" is a long lament by a woman who loses her son during Zimbabwe's liberation struggle in the late 1970s. It is presumably set in a neighbouring country. The woman conceived the son one dark night to a soldier -- quite a typical story of that era.

The son grows up and is filled with the spirit of the warrior father and thus joins the war effort.

Unfortunately he is caught by the Rhodesian enemy bullet, and dies.

The woman is crying upon his grave, in a long, reflective lamentation.

The symbolic meaning of the story was the danger -- and death -- in and of politics. And in mid-2017, the politics of Zimbabwe was smelling so dangerous.

The title of the book meant so much, not least because Zanu-PF had a history of Political Commissars that died "mysteriously". In the original cover of the book, we had conceived an accident scene where what looked like a Range Rover was upended and lay on its roof on the tarmac, in a bloody spatter.

Just like in the title, I had wanted something so graphic and eye-catching and would bounce off ideas with the designer, sometimes making drawings on paper and sending the impressions via WhatsApp messaging from Johannesburg, South Africa.

Sometimes the ritual would last into the night as I tried to get the best impression and the designer was patient and kind.

The first few copies that we had -- and gave to different media -- had that graphic upended Range Rover.

And all the anachronism with it, one could add, for how could a story of death in the liberation struggle in the 1970s feature a latest Range Rover Sport!

But it all added to the controversy and the adrenaline.

Yet, by the time I had the inaugural launch in Harare on July 6, I had changed my mind on the controversial cover, preferring a simple black one, depicting death, with the title written in that font you associate with horror movies.

It was good enough, and less bloody.

Yet the controversy had already stirred.

Professor Jonathan Moyo wrote something on Twitter about the morbid wish of the Lacoste faction to see Kasukuwere dead. G40 lackeys in the media would take screenshots of my promotion of the book and other political statements, which would end up with the kingpins, ostensibly as more evidence of the shenanigans of their political rivals and something to stack against us when the purges came to The Herald, as indeed they nearly did.

Kasukuwere himself and I had some conversation which I explained that I did not wish him dead.

I even invited him to the launch, but he must have been outside the country at that time. However, a close ally of his later bought the book quite handsomely, which offered the opportunity for Kasukuwere and his colleagues to scrutinise.

Luckily, not much offence was found, I presume for no trouble followed.

The launch of the book drew a full house at a venue in Harare with a surprisingly diverse crowd.

Special Advisor to the President, Chris Mutsvangwa -- who was at that time in the political wilderness having been banished by G40 and fighting a lonesome battle -- was there.

Obert Gutu, MDC-T spokesman at the time when Morgan Tsvangirai still led the opposition before succumbing to cancer on Valentine's Day 2018, was there. So were politicians such as the (now) Education Minister Paul Mavima, Kindness Paradza and Keith Guzah.

Patson Dzamara was there too, along with some Harare celebrities and socialites. (Spencer Madziya, the kindest soul and businessman who is committed to the arts, in particular urban contemporary music -- a passion we both share, was there.)

Some of the best writers in town, including Sekai Nzenza and Philip Chidavaenzi, were there.

It was impressive.

Not surprisingly, in a three-month period around the book's publication it received very generous coverage of close to 20 articles in the media.

The idea of the "Death of the Commissar" sold quite well.

(It's a pity I am not a millionaire and remain quite a poor, but considerably famous writer.) When "Death of the Commissar" came and went, I was already trying to put something together on the succession in Zanu-PF, in particular post-2004. You see, as a writer and student of history, I select my subjects quite well on the basis of interest and attachment and how I find them to be good stories. As it turned out, something happened in November 2017, that saw the fall of Mugabe after 37 years in power.

By then I had a manuscript of some four chapters, which translated was about 16 000 words.

I immediately approached a major book publisher here in Johannesburg, that deals with literary non-fiction and the publishers were struck by the sheer knack and timing and set out to work with me on the project.

The book is coming -- albeit largely shorn of the Mugabe factor, which remains a big theme, but with another focus.

Zimbabwean journalism would do well to learn from South Africa which is so big in creative and literary non-fiction narratives. Every current affairs issue is a book waiting to be written.

Every major political player is a story to be told.

There are limitless books about current affairs and politics on the shelves right now.

One can guess just how one could binge on books.

I'm currently reading Barry Sergeant's "Brett Kebble: the Inside story". Before that I read Jacques Pauw's famous "President's Keeper's" and before it, on a coach journey to Harare, Jonathan Ancer's "Spy".

I'm yet to finish Antony Buttler's biography on President Cyril Ramaphosa, having stopped somewhere where the young Cyril was at school and distinguished himself through religious fervour and discipline.

Reading a lot is a sure inspiration for what is surely coming to be a specialty of this writer: Creative Non-Fiction and Long Form Journalism.

It's a rare talent in Zimbabwean journalism. It will also help generations to come if journalistic freedom is allowed to flourish and writers can tackle and document issues without fear or receiving threats and warnings for merely trying to write history as it unfolds.

Which is enough to tell the reader that during the research of the current project, I happened to get some friendly advice on a number of occasions, to abandon or otherwise alter the course and content of the subject.

Which I appreciate so much. (I am even more indebted to the Editor-in-Chief of The Herald, Caesar Zvayi, a hulking man who stands several feet above, and on his ground, and supports lesser mortals that he believes in.)

But there is a lot to indict Zimbabwe, which hopefully the "new dispensation" will settle.

Writing is for posterity.

It's massive heritage to bequeath our children -- even when we writers and journalists remain poor although we slave everyday writing week in week out, not only for our papers, but for the future. Of course, not everyone is endowed or committed to be churning out material with prolificacy.

(PS: My original idea in writing this instalment was to reflect on the return of Saviour Kasukuwere from a sixth month self-imposed exile and its political implications. It's a story to be examined one day, soon. Yet, reflecting on writing and its prospects for Zimbabwean journalism is a worthy subject we hope the reader has not found boring!)


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