Liberation war veterans shake Zimbabwe politics


By Norm Dixon

Veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war have mounted a determined campaign to expose the Mugabe government's failure to deliver decent living standards and land for the poor, and to fight corruption. Veterans want decent pensions and are angry that their pension fund has been looted by high-ranking officials.

Angry former guerillas disrupted the annual Heroes' Day ceremony on August 11. The holiday commemorates the fighters who died in the bush war against the racist Rhodesian government.

Mugabe traditionally speaks emotionally for over an hour about the sacrifices the Zimbabwean people made during the struggle and talks of the gains that await them. Over the past 16 years, Zimbabweans have heard many Heroes' Day promises, but few have been delivered.

This year Mugabe was forced to cut short his speech in Harare after more than 500 angry veterans jeered and whistled through his speech.

Others sang freedom songs, danced and pounded on drums. They waved placards saying, "We are forgotten!" and chanted, "Don't fool around with blood of the fallen fighters". Veterans interrupted ceremonies in other parts of the country.

A month earlier, Mugabe was embarrassed when veterans demonstrated at the opening of the African-American Summit in Harare, a gathering of African and African-American business people, celebrities and intellectuals.

On August 15, veterans invaded the party headquarters of the ruling Zimbabwe African Nation Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) in response to statements by party leaders criticising the former guerillas' campaign. Armed riot police surrounded the building.

Reflecting the respect that the former liberation fighters command, riot police refused to obey orders to disperse the veterans. The protesters left after six hours.

Veterans also picketed Mugabe's presidential offices in Harare and demanded to speak to the president, who is patron of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans' Association (ZNLWVA). They then marched on the offices of the social welfare ministry. On August 18, police fired tear gas at protesting veterans.

Many veterans are disabled and live in poverty. Like other Zimbabweans, they suffer from housing shortages, poor education and health services and land shortages. They resent the fact that the main beneficiaries of "liberation" have been a tight circle of the elite, while the wealthy, mostly white, commercial farmers have prospered.

They have been demanding payments from the War Victims Compensation Fund set up for them. Payments were suspended after it was discovered that senior ZANU-PF and government officials claiming compensation for "war injuries" had been paid huge sums. More than half of the available funds were siphoned off.

Cabinet ministers and Mugabe's brother-in-law have received payments of Z$850,000 (A$100,000). Some who have claimed were only six years old at independence. Many had never fired a shot. Vice-President Joshua Nkomo had his claim paid within two weeks of application in January, while hundreds are still waiting for their claims to be processed after lodging theirs at independence in 1980.

Mugabe's aptly named brother-in-law, Reward Marufu, claimed to have a 95% disability. Another official in Mugabe's office, Aaron Nhepera, was paid A$60,000 after claiming to have a 98% disability. Nhepera told an inquiry on August 29 that, despite his "war injuries", he could still perform his duties "efficiently and effectively".

"There are so many cabinet members, army officers and police officers who are claiming funds for serious disabilities, it is a wonder the government can function at all", opposition MP Margaret Dongo commented wryly to the South African Weekly Mail and Guardian.

"The politicians should be the first to know that people were detained and sent to prison during the colonial time. But that didn't stop the uprising", warned Chenjerai Hunzvi, chairperson of the ZNLWVA.

Mugabe finally agreed to meet the veterans' leaders on August 21, after they threatened to occupy white-owned farms. They met for seven hours. The veterans demanded that half of all ex-combatants be given land by the end of this year, and the rest by July 1998.

The government on August 27 agreed to pay a tax-free pension to veterans of about A$250 monthly and a one-off payment of A$4000. Free education and health care will be extended to veterans' families. Chinese tractors and grinding mills will be made available to veterans resettled on redistributed land.

The government and big business fear the liberation fighters' movement may galvanise the general dissatisfaction of the Zimbabwe people at the limited gains made since independence. As Zimbabwe's leading weekly newspaper, the Zimbabwe Independent, noted in an article titled "Yesterday's heroes become tomorrow's villains", "The personal interests of the political ruling class have come to stand between the promises made at independence and the wishes of the people".