What’s the long-term political capital of the criticism of Joshua Nkomo’s decisions?

Generations upon generations have come and gone, and each generation has left its own legacy. Matabeleland has its own past for which Joshua Nkomo, the leader of PF ZAPU and most powerful and influential Ndebele in modern history, remains a significant figure; we must not seek to fix the blame for Nkomo’s past decisions which were in pursuit of his goals set in response to challenges of his generation, but let us accept out responsibility for the future of Matabeleland.

Image credit: Mary Evans via Agefotostock. Joshua Nkomo (1917 – 1999), leader of PF ZAPU and former vice President of Zimbabwe famously said, “The hardest lesson of my life has come to me late. It is that a nation can win freedom without its people becoming free.” 

We must acknowledge the onerous role Nkomo played in the past to tackle the challenges of his time; when faced by colonial rule and all its stood for, Nkomo did not sit around wallowing in misery blaming King Lobengula for the defeat of the Ndebele in the 19th Century that ushered in white minority rule, he led a fight against one of the most racist regimes in human history, and won.

As expected, the decisions and actions taken as part of a broader political process in that time shaped politics of today and we accept that in many ways some of his undertakings have left us more vulnerable; it is true that Matabeleland is severely disadvantaged and marginalised.

However, we will not bother to blame the past because we have no control over it, but what we have full control over is our response to the impact of the past. It is important that people do not allow the forces of emotion and the challenges they face to be their master, we need cool heads and good leadership to diagnose our problem correctly so as to identify the appropriate corrective measures.

First, let us take our responsibility to the challenges of the day. The most certain step towards surrendering your power to build the future is finding someone, something, anything to blame for the present; if blaming the past becomes a strategy it becomes a hindrance to any movement; the blame game only gives you temporary respite from reality, and allows you false exoneration in not playing your role for the present as well as giving you an excuse to abdicate your responsibilities for the future.   

There is a growing ideological reckoning within the Matabeleland movement keen to misrepresent the past and disproportionately blame Nkomo for the political and economic outcomes in Matabeleland. Yes, Nkomo made some fundamental judgement errors in his view of post-independence politics, but Robert Mugabe the head of state from 1980 until his removal via a coup in November 2017 bears the greatest responsibility for our inhumane experiences which include Gukurahundi atrocities.

Seeking for objective analyses of Nkomo’s leadership is not the same as objecting to criticism and critique of his work and leadership. We believe all who stand up for something invite criticism and critic and Nkomo should be subject to critique if the Matabeleland political space is to make progressive strides. Through PF ZAPU and ZPRA, Nkomo led the liberation struggle that brought an independent Zimbabwe, and as already suggested, the analyses of his performance is fine.

Both criticism and critique are forms of feedback, but it is their motive which give them their validity. In general, criticism is judgmental and focused on finding fault, while critique is descriptive and balanced. While critique is selfless (i.e., it respects the subject’s goals, not what the critic wants), criticism is selfish (i.e., it advances the goals of the critic); we can argue that critique provides for a better learning environment.

It is fair to say the majority in our society do not object to a critique of Nkomo’s leadership of the liberation struggle and his political role immediately after independence when it became clear ZANU was keen to obfuscate the liberation goals. But it is the nature of the allegations being made that is concerning. The analysis of his leadership must be for informative purposes only not as some form of political strategy because it is unhelpful when used from that angle; the steps he took are out of our control but what we have control over is our response to their impact.

The objective of looking back at the past must not be to shred Nkomo, the man, to pieces but to sought to understand why and how he made the decisions he made at the time he made them. We want to tease out personal factors (leadership style), institutional/ organisational factors (leadership structure/ power distribution and decision-making process), internal factors (the degree/ quality of public participation in the liberation struggle) and external factors (foreign governments’ influence) for a truly representative analysis and informative conclusion.

It is only this collateral understanding that will give us the appropriate context upon which we can determine what counts as relevant information to be gathered, and what are the reliable sources to be used. We can then analyse the past and its impact on Matabeleland now, but that should not be a substitute to a good understanding of what is happening now; an objective analyses of the present will provide chances to build back a better present better able to face existential challenges, and take responsibility to shape the future.

Just as Nkomo and his colleagues sought to solve the socio-political challenges of their generation and did not aim shots at King Lobengula but at the colonialist, our generation has the responsibility for the present and the future. We need to take our responsibility for the future seriously. Criticising Nkomo has not had political capital for ALL individuals and/ or groups that have pursued that route for the simple reason that it neither addresses current issues nor does it begin to help build a resilient nation for future local and international challenges.  

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