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EDITORIAL COMMENT : National Unity Day: Let us learn from history

The late former president Robert Mugabe of Zanu PF and former vice-president Joshua Nkomo of PF Zapu on December 22, 1987. — File picture

National Unity Day goes far beyond the merger of two major political parties, as its full title shows, and needs to be taken seriously, signifying that whatever our differences, we are all Zimbabweans and that we all have a duty and responsibility to settle our differences peacefully and never again allow those differences to spin out of control.

Of course, as Zimbabweans, we will have our disagreements, sometimes serious disagreements.

We have potential divisions: economic differences splitting rich and poor, religious differences, cultural differences, linguistic differences, ideological differences.

We can split over whether we are socially conservative or want major social changes.

But all these differences are part of that large, sometimes messy, diversity that makes up a modern democratic state.

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Totalitarians like to put everyone into the same mental straight-jacket, all thinking, acting and reacting the same.

Democrats want to embrace the diversity, seeing how it enriches us, and then set up systems that harness that diversity creatively, continuously creating ever better social and economic systems that make life better, and more interesting, for us all. And more fun.

For we need to remember that while we need to debate and discuss our common future, and work together to solve our common problems, we can also play together and sing together.

We are not born into a rigid box; we are born into a large and glorious country.

At the heart of national unity is the fact that we are all citizens of one country, with one flag.

We share a common history, sometimes with good parts, which we can remember and build on, sometimes with bad, even terrible parts, that we need to remember, analyse and vow never to repeat.

We share, despite ideological, cultural and political differences, many of the same goals.

We all want a better country; we all want better education for our children; we all want decent and affordable health care; we all want economic development and more opportunities to earn a good living.

These goals unite us. We can argue, and must argue, over the best way of achieving these goals, but remembering that the journey is a process that never really ends.

We set targets, meet those targets and then find we want more and set new targets. But we also need to remember that we, in every action we take, in every target we set, are walking together and working together.

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And if we do not, if we all go off in opposite directions, then we achieve nothing. Radical disunity can shatter everyone’s dreams.

Our history, regrettably, has examples of how disunity can damage our country.

The settler regimes were keen, in fact insisted, on splitting the country racially and imposed lower disuniting concepts, partly because it was easier to rule a divided country and partly because a social construct based on race and culture makes it easy to put everyone in a little box based on a limited set of outward characteristics, rather than seeing every person as a unique human being.

The majority suffered, and suffered badly, because wrong ideas were imposed by force.

When the nationalist movement split in the early 1960s, it was partly on ideological grounds and partly over arguments over the best way of achieving a non-racial inclusive democracy.

This was not that serious, in fact, and for many years was managed with people continuing to work together, such as in the early 1970s to defeat the Smith-Home proposals for permanent minority rule.

Even in the liberation war there was a united front and the differences in rear-bases and even some military and political strategies were never expected to lead to anything very much.

If the elections of the 1980s had led to a split in Parliament between a more conservative party and a more radical party, it would not have been a big deal.

Indeed, it would be a quite normal democratic process. Unfortunately, those elections led to a regional split in party representation in Parliament, and then, even more unfortunately, the situation was allowed to spin out of control.

Mistakes were made by many, and the external and deliberate meddling by the apartheid regime in South Africa, desperate to prevent Zimbabwe being a good example and even more desperate to ensure Zimbabwe was engulfed in its own affairs, was an added serious factor. We all know what happened, and we are still appalled by the results of the loss of control.

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That was when Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo showed levels of statesmanship and went for the radical solution of not just a deal to live together, but a merger of their parties and the re-establishment of a single party to represent the old and still dominant nationalist and liberation movement strand in Zimbabwean political life.

The ideological differences between the two merging parties were modest, and in any case there were large areas of overlap between views of individual members, and so all could easily be accommodated in the same big tent party.

And it worked, largely because almost everybody was determined it should. We showed we can learn from history.

We were standing on the brink and we stepped back, and not just stepped back but decided to take a new road, this time together.

New parties have arisen since then. But those that have got as far as winning a single local government ward in an election, let alone anything more important, have been nationally based. Even the present Parliamentary split between urban and rural constituencies hides the fact that both major political strands have supporters, and in some cases many supporters, in constituencies won by the other group.

An over-simplistic analysis would perhaps divide the present Zimbabwean political landscape into the haves, chunks of the business sectors and organised skilled labour, who want to preserve what they have, and the have nots, mainly the self-employed and poor, who include so many of our farmers, who want to see a good deal more State intervention in planning equitable economic growth. The new drive for rapid economic growth will in turn create new coalitions of interests.

What National Unity Day must therefore symbolise is both our essential unity, that we are walking together on the road to a better Zimbabwe, and that we have learned the lessons of our sometimes unfortunate history, that letting divisions spin out of control exacts a terrible price.

And the third lesson is that all in political office, whatever their ideology, have a fundamental duty to show maturity as demonstrated on 22 December 1987, that our common humanity and common citizenship overrides all other divisions.

HERALD