“The 21st February Movement was established in 1986 to encourage Zimbabweans, the youths in particular, to emulate Robert Mugabe’s revolutionary ideas, charismatic leadership and selfless policies.” – Pindula
Believe it or not, I was once part of a church praise and worship team (*cues snarky comments*). I used to be able to sing and play the guitar boldly and with fervor and holy (sort of) precision. The thing about praise and worship teams is that they’re often filled with young, vibrant, talented and passionate people. Young people who are willing to give all they have to a church that they believe is integral to their growth as Christians, and a god who is all-knowing and loves them despite their faults. One of the things I often heard in church rhetoric was that praising and worshipping was a “lifestyle” and that it didn’t start or end with singing on a stage/pulpit. The idea was that you would “praise Him” no matter how you feel, what you were going through, how broken or in despair or angry you were, or how much you felt your life wasn’t going according to plan.
Your praise wasn’t determined by your circumstances, basically. You were to be in continuous praise and awe of this deity that obviously only wanted the best for you.
Now fast-forward to the first time I asked my dad why the President held such a lavish birthday party in the midst of so many structural problems that needed attention. He said, “So should we not celebrate our leaders’ lives simply because we have a few problems?” I thought that was a cop out of a response, but I didn’t argue immediately. This year, Gushungo turned 92. Last year, my post was on the logistics of the party and what that amount of money could do for the youth, but today I’ll focus on the spirit in which the party is held, and its effect on how I view politics in Zimbabwe. Now firstly I don’t actually know anyone close to me who has reached 92, so kudos to him. The celebrations are being held in Masvingo, the home of Great Zimbabwe. (I sincerely hope the 50 cows that were slaughtered were bought from Masvingo farmers whose cattle have been dying at alarming rates due to drought). I think it’s remarkable that the man can even walk straight, let alone sit/partially sleep through government events, chair the African Union and mediate between petty factional wars. I am not of the persuasion that he hasn’t done anything good for my country – that would simply be untrue. I am also aware and grateful for his stance against the marginalisation and belittling of African narratives and agendas in a Eurocentric world more broadly. His story isn’t one-dimensional, and that’s important for me to acknowledge and emphasise.
But while I am no longer a member of a praise and worship church team, somehow I reluctantly found myself and other youths as members of a national praise and worship team that serves the political kingdom of Zanu. It’s headed by a man who is, according to his wife and many of his supporters, ordained by God to lead the country. By extension, his leadership has become sacred, divine and therefore criticising it becomes borderline taboo. It’s a hard kingdom to praise, especially when you’re the child of one of its officials.
Your praise isn’t determined by your circumstances, basically. You are to be in continuous praise and awe of this deity that obviously only wants the best for you.
I’m always fascinated by the idea of memory-making, remembering and history. Part of the reason the 21st movement is such a big deal is that it is continuously reproducing the image of a resilient, passionate and selfless leader who cares for nothing more than the well-being of every Zimbabwean. It creates an image of a near perfect African leader who has championed human rights and has been a stellar example of how political work should be done. And this is where, as a young indoctrinated praise and worshipper, I struggled. The Zimbabwe that I remember is not the Zimbabwe my parents remembered. By extension, the leadership I have experienced is not necessarily the leadership my parents experienced. How we remember things is determined by what we recall and what has been represented to us as truths. My earliest contact with critiques of political work was in 2005 during Murambatsvina. It was one of the first moments I stopped singing in the choir, looked around and problematised the kingdom I was a part of. I stopped strumming the chords, I opened my eyes, and I listened to the alternative voices outside of the ‘church’.
Perpetual praise had blinded me from political violence, exclusionary tactics, politicised food aid, corruption, blatant disregard for human rights, and a waning emancipatory politics mantra that used to form the basis of every politician’s vision. Perpetual praise meant that the majority of any problems we were facing as a nation had to do with outside (satanic) influences; that the only way to defeat the devil (read West) and his minions was to praise and worship in the political kingdom that saved you from yourselves. Perpetual praise meant trusting that your tithe (taxes) were being used for the furthering of the kingdom, and that you would be rewarded 100 fold for your ‘seed’. Perpetual praise meant being in the world but not ‘of’ the rest of the critical world that picked apart the kingdom’s value systems and foundations. Perpetual praise meant even if you didn’t know all the words, you would hum and close your eyes passionately, going with the flow and allowing the spirit (propaganda machine) to guide you. It meant being forever grateful for your country even when it was becoming increasingly difficult to live in. Above all it meant trusting that the “Man of God” was in constant conversation with God and would lead the flock in the right direction.
Gushungo’s celebrations aren’t confined to the 21st February movement and the actual day of merry-making, long speeches, police bands and so on. The day is one of the many moments we are called to praise and worship to perform all the songs we’ve been practicing over the years. The party is a reminder of the history that has been constructed to place Gushungo in the perpetual, divine light, never tainted by the dark, alternative stories of violence and ‘madness’ that have been a part of his legacy too. It is a time when we’re called once again, despite our circumstances, to sing repetitive choruses at the top of our voices.
I am no longer a member of the praise and worship team so I’ll save myself from all the pomp and passionate singing this year. Happy birthday, RGM.
An ever critical daughter of a deceased ordinary card-carrying member.