Rhodes, Mugabe and the politics of commemorative toponyms in Zimbabwe

Rhodes Must Fall: A student protest movement that started at the University of Cape Town, South Africa for the removal of a Cecil Rhodes monument. Source: Postcolonial.com

By Dr. Tendai Mangena: Dr. Mangena is a senior lecturer in English at Great Zimbabwe University, Department of English and Media Studies, and a Research Fellow of English Department at University of the Free State.  She is the current deputy president of the Names Society of Southern Africa (NSSA).

“Rhodes, Mugabe and the politics of commemorative toponyms in Zimbabwe” interrogates the politics surrounding commemorative toponyms in post-independence Zimbabwe. It uses the renaming of a school, from Rhodes Estate Preparatory School (REPS) to Matopos Junior School prior to Robert Mugabe’s celebrations of his ninety-third birthday in 2017, to talk about the contested political functions of the toponymic tags Robert Mugabe and Cecil John Rhodes. The paper uses the critical approach to toponym to argue that in post-independence Zimbabwe commemorative toponyms are political spaces which can be used to study not only the country’s colonial history but also its postcolonial realities. The study uses Zimbabwean media representations of the renaming of the school. The newspapers that reported on the matter are in two categories, the patriotic and the critical. The Patriot report uses the event to narrate Rhodes’ culpability in colonial violence and Mugabe’s political heroism acquired during the fight against colonialism. The ZimEye and NewsDay stories subvert the narrative of Mugabe’s heroic deeds by invoking his complicity in Zimbabwe’s postcolonial violence. The juxtaposition of the two narratives and the comparative perspective it engenders functions in this study to give balance to the conceptualization of the event, especially as the juxtaposition provokes Mugabe’s contested political identities. The two narratives also correspond to the two ways in which the public responded\perceived the event. The patriotic narrative resonates with the political ruling party members’ perception, who hailed the renaming of the school as a de-commemoration of Rhodes and a decolonizing act. There are also resonances between the ZimEye narrative and the public that questioned the materiality of the name change in a manner that brings into perspective an important aspect of reputational politics.

In this paper it has been shown that the renaming of places named after Rhodes in post-independence Zimbabwe is perceived as a strategy of damning the colonial past. However, this process of toponymic cleansing has complications and is a largely contested exercise as shown in the renaming of REPS. The renaming of the school was done thirty-seven years after the country got its independence and was contested on the basis that the colonial problem was not an urgent matter. Rather the country was in a crisis that was attributed to Mugabe’s misrule among other factors. So, while Mugabe and his ruling party used the occasion to sustain their anti-colonial rhetoric, others used the same occasion to raise issues about Mugabe’s integrity. His complicity in the Gukurahundi violence was deployed by his critics to destabilize the narrative of honoring Mugabe that was used to justify the renaming of REPS.

The paper has also shown that Mugabe’s political heroism has been contested elsewhere through various damages done to R. G. Mugabe road signs. These have been interpreted as symbolic acts of people’s resentment of Mugabe and their calls for his removal from power. The problems that arise out of the commemoration of persons with questionable images and political reputations were revealed through these symbolic acts of resentment. Thus, in this paper it has been demonstrated that place names, especially commemorative toponyms in Zimbabwe are political spaces par excellence. Contestations made with regards to the renaming of the school revealed the complexities of the processes of decolonization. Arguably, Mugabe is taken as a liberation icon who was honored at independence with some places named after him. We could then use the questioning of his political integrity in postcolonial Zimbabwe, especially in the post 2000 period to signal the failure of his leadership and the lack thereof of a success trajectory.

This is a summarized version of the paper: Rhodes, Mugabe and the politics of commemorative toponyms, published in Geopolitics, 2018.

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