Africa, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights

Artists Refuse Silence on Zimbabwe Atrocities

Busani Bafana

BULAWAYO, Jun 15 2010 (IPS) - In a bold attempt to stoke public debate on national healing, an art exhibition is challenging the government to publicly acknowledge one of the most hideous episodes in Zimbabwe’s history.

In the early 1980s, the government of then-Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, dispatched the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of Zimbabwe’s army to Matabeleland, in the south of the country.

As it stamped out armed conflict with sections of the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU), the Fifth Brigade, ominously nicknamed “Gukurahundi”, the Shona word for the spring rains that wash away chaff, killed more than 20,000 civilians in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces.

ZAPU was one of the two parties that fought the war for Zimbabwean independence, operating chiefly in the Ndebele-speaking south of the country. The operation against it by the exclusively Shona-speaking Fifth Brigade consolidated the power of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, but left deep wounds that remain to this day.

The findings of the 1984 Chihambakwe Commission of inquiry into the events has never been released; government promises to compensate the families of missing persons have never been fulfilled; the authorities have suppressed most discussion of the atrocities.

Breaking the silence

In March 2010, painter Owen Maseko, himself a victim of post-independence violence, had a solo exhibit at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, Sibathontisele (which means “let us drip on them” in Ndebele), swiftly closed down by the feared Central Intelligence Organisation. Maseko was arrested and accused of instilling hatred for Mugabe and Shona-speaking Zimbabweans.

The windows of the National Gallery remain hastily papered-over, Maseko’s paintings presumably still sealed up inside. Undeterred, he participated in another exhibition in May, one of 26 artists showing their work at the Bulawayo Club in an exhibition titled “Truth Telling: the truth will set you free”.

“This exhibition is an affirmation for me that I am not the only one who feels terrible about what happened,” Maseko told IPS. “My experience made me realise how this issue is being suppressed as I thought courts were for criminals and not for artists.”

The paintings were among nearly 30 other artworks in stone, metal, canvas and wood. With titles like “A Nightmare”, “Digging up the Past”, “Confrontation”, “and Elusive Freedom”, the artists’ feeling about Gukurahundi are not difficult to judge.

Maseko was given a prize at the opening of the exhibition for his painting, “Babylon Gavel”. Directly inspired by his arrest in March, the painting depicts a dreadlocked man in handcuffs and leg irons and a figure resembling President Mugabe clutching four gavels under an inscription, “Silence in court, Here comes the Babylon judge”.

Fearless behaviour from a man who appeared in court on Jun. 8, to face charges of  “undermining the authority of the President”, “inciting public violence” and “causing offence to people of a particular tribe, race, religion” under the Public Order And Security Act (POSA).

Zimbabwe: a house divided

POSA is one of several repressive laws that the government of national unity pledged to strike down under the agreement that established it. Maseko’s lawyer, Kucaca Phulu, sought to have the charges dropped, but the court ruled that Maseko will stand trial and date has been set for Aug.18.

But Deputy Prime Minister Thokozani Khuphe, who presented prizes at the “Truth Telling” exhibition, said it was a positive step towards national healing. She said people in Matabeleland have been bottling up bitterness for too long and it was not helping national healing.

“The truth must be told, and I fail to understand someone who arrests an artist for expressing their views and feelings,” said Khuphe, who belongs to the Movement for Democratic Change, uneasy partners with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF in the unity government.

“Art is a form of communication; people must be allowed to express their views. We must never be scared to talk about these things because they happened… the time is now for truth telling and the politicians must sort out this mess and heal our country.”

Those sentiments did not prevent police from preventing an exhibition in Harare’s Delta Gallery from opening in March, seizing photographs of victims of government torture during the disputed 2008 elections.

A court ordered them returned, but the show – put together by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Organisation – did not last a single night as police returned and seized the photographs again in defiance of a standing court order that the exhibition should not be interfered with.

Speaking truth to power

The multimedia exhibition in Bulawayo in May escaped the clampdown, and its organisers, the Radio Dialogue – a local trust that has been waiting to be licensed to operate a community radio station in Bulawayo – hope this will last as they take the exhibition to Harare and outside the country.

White settler oppression forced blacks to go to war, says sculptor Collins Chitaka, but after 1980 a black government came to power and continued what they had condemned the white regime for.

His stone carving, ironically titled “A human being is a human being”, depicts a head split in two, showing a white and black face, body sprawled on skulls and other bones, forms part of the “Truth Telling” exhibition.

“It is like the brain of a white man gets into the brain of a black man. When each is in power they feel proud while people are dying. The mistakes of the past are being made today,” said Chitaka.

Another sculpture, executed in metal by Danisile Ncube, captures a policeman, baton in the air, striking a woman lying prostrate, her mouth open in protest.

“When we talk of national healing, we have to put a stop to the current violence that the police use to deal with women who are expressing their concerns. Where is the justice?”

The chairman of the Radio Dialogue trust, Peter Khumalo, said government should reconstitute the Organ on National Healing appointed in April 2009.

“The organ is too politicised by political party representation. National healing is supposed to be for the nation and not for political parties,” Khumalo told IPS. “National healing is process and it is not too late to make changes.

Organisers hope the atrocities should not be forgotten and want the works of this exhibition to become a permanent collection for a remembrance museum similar to those set up in Rwanda and Israel to remember victims of atrocities.

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