Following the devastating implications of Covid-19 Zimbabwe was forced to celebrate its National Heroes’ Day virtually for the past two years. That came to an end this year with celebratory formalities marking the 42nd Heroes Day Commemoration in the nation’s capital, Harare last week. The national holiday holds sentimental value to Zimbabwe as it looks at the African nation’s experience of colonisation and how arms were taken up and freedom fought for.
The mid-1940s through to the 80s constitute a historical, busy and not-to-forget dangerous period that saw many African countries fight for their independence from European colonial rule, a rule that more often than not, oppressed the black majority at every turn and evoked the response of war, and Zimbabwe was no exception. The southern African country’s ‘Chimurenga’ war otherwise known as ‘Umvekela’ (which loosely translates to ‘revolutionary struggle’) orchestrated the creation of many soldiers.
The National Heroes’ Day holiday was declared in 1980 shortly after Zimbabwe gained independence from Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front. To go along with the holiday is a lavish monument that serves as the resting place of Zimbabwe’s war heroes called the National Heroes Acre. Zimbabwe celebrated the holiday on the stipulated second Monday of every August.
The holiday and the dedicated shrine have a symbolic meaning to the people of Zimbabwe who celebrate the brave men and women that laid down their lives in hopes of furthering the Chimurenga war efforts. The day is characterised by music, dance and speeches from the nation’s leaders particularly the president during a nationally televised celebratory event held at the Heroes’ Acre annually. Schools and most businesses do not operate on this day and the following day is known as National Defence Forces Day.
This Year’s Presidential Address
Zimbabwean President, Emerson Mnangagwa addressed dignitaries, armed forces and family members of national heroes for the first time in person since the covid-19 pandemic broke. In his speech he stated:
“It is my singular honour and privilege to be addressing you all, at this Forty-Second commemorations of our National Heroes Day. This day reminds us that we are not an ordinary people; neither are we an ordinary nation. Our collective ancestry has ingrained in us, the resilient and warrior spirit of our forebears, who were ingenious innovators, builders, explorers, enterprising traders and yes, gallant fighters…”
“…Zimbabwe has come a long way as a nation born out of a protracted armed liberation struggle, and we have scored victory upon victory since the attainment of our hard-won Independence in 1980. Today, we stand tall among the liberated and independent peoples of the world, as masters of our own destiny.”
“…As I conclude, I once again call upon us all to honour our heroes and heroines by demonstrating unflinching patriotism and loyalty to our beloved motherland, Zimbabwe. Those we are paying homage to, fought for our independence knowing no tribe but bonded together by their love for Zimbabwe and desire to see our people free. Let us carry the baton as heroes and heroines of this period, right from within our communities. Every one of us is enjoined to play their part. There can be no spectators.”
President Emerson Mnangagwa also bestowed the honour of being declared a national hero to a few more individuals like the late Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole and the late Cde James Chikerema this year.
Who Qualifies and Why
In line with the National Heroes Act only the President can bestow the status on individuals, “where the President considers that any deceased person who was a citizen of Zimbabwe has deserved well of his country on account of his outstanding, distinctive and distinguished service to Zimbabwe, he may, by notice in Gazette, designate, such a person a national, provincial or district hero of Zimbabwe.”
Being declared a national hero is the highest honour that can be bestowed on a Zimbabwean citizen. The ‘Hero’ status is classified by three categories; national, provincial and district which is determined by the level of contribution one made during or after the liberation struggle and dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
While most war veterans may be declared national heroes at one point or another; serving uniformed citizens and other prominent figures can be awarded the honour depending on the magnitude of their contribution to Zimbabwe’s freedom and maintaining it.
At the moment almost 200 heroes and heroines are buried at the monument. Among them are prominent historical figures like Joshua Nkomo and former President Robert Mugabe. Military personnel like Retired Major General Gideon Taurayi Rodello Lifa and Air Commodore Mike Tichafa Karakadzai can also be found there. The monument also caters to individuals who disappeared during the liberation struggle like E. Sithole and E. Dube who haven’t been heard from since 1975 and 1973 respectively. Civilians with extraordinary contributions to Zimbabwe’s glory may also be awarded national heroes. For instance, the late legendary musician, Oliver Mtukudzi was granted national hero status in 2019.
The Heroes’ Acre Monument
The National Heroes’ Acre (or Heroes Acre) monument is located on 23 hectares of land on a ridge seven kilometres from Harare along Bulawayo road on the N1 highway. The monument consists of burial sites, murals, a museum and the iconic tomb of the unknown soldier. The monument’s architectural layout is modelled after two AK47s positioned back to back, while the grave arrangement is meant to serve as the guns’ magazines (or ammunition).
The monument’s construction began in September of 1981 and it took ten Zimbabwean and seven North Korean architects and artists to come up with the layout. One of the most notable features of the heroes’ monument is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tomb pays homage to the tens of thousands of unidentified liberation fighters who did not make it home. The tomb is a bronze statue of one female and two male soldiers in uniform holding an AK47, a flag and a bazooka respectively.
The monument also has an eternal flame that rests on top of the tower modelled after the AK47s that was lit during independence celebrations in 1982. The flame represents the spirit of Zimbabweans. The tower stands at a staggering 40meters high, can be seen from most parts of the city of Harare and is the highest point at the Heroes Acre. The monument is decorated with murals that depict Zimbabwe’s colonial experience, the chimurenga war and historical events surrounding the nation’s independence.
To further elaborate on the heroes’ acre’s significance and the history of it all is in a museum located on site. This museum has documents, photographs, artefacts and significant items linked to the chimurenga war.
E. Zaranyika penned a poem dedicated to fallen liberation fighters in 1983, on the eve of Zimbabwe’s Independence Day.
I conclude with a few words from Mary Roach, “Heroism doesn’t always happen in a burst of glory. Sometimes small triumphs and large hearts change the course of history.”
On this our day of liberation
We turn eyes to you
Our brothers and sisters;
The fallen heroes of Zimbabwe
Our hearts bleed for you,
Yet we know we must not grieve;
For in you is our rebirth;
You are all that we shall ever be.