Military memoirs’ covers

The covers of military memoirs are a revealing source for understanding global connections and military exchanges in Southern Africa’s liberation wars.  Their titles, dominant visual imagery and symbolism convey messages about the meanings and memory of war, and the international solidarities involved.  Some covers are crafted by authors, while others may reflect publishers’ interests.  Either way, they may tell us about public expectations and political contexts for publishing, as well veterans’ personal concerns.  They may amplify or create dissonance with aspects of the books’ textual content. Like the main texts themselves, the covers testify to great diversity – in terms of the authors’ positionalities during the war and after, and where, when and by whom the memoirs were written and published.

In the case of ZPRA memoirs, their covers reflect veterans’ central concern for recognition as part of a national Zimbabwean story of the independence struggle, occluded in partisan ZANU(PF)-dominated state commemorations.  The depictions of freedom fighters they deploy echo national and wider Southern African celebratory, romanticised heroic imagery. There are iconic images of guerrillas alongside symbols of the Zimbabwean nation and statehood in the form of national outline maps, flags, pictures of Great Zimbabwe, the emblematic stone-carved Zimbabwe eagle, or in one case the crest of the Zimbabwe National Army.  This nationalist imagery is mixed with revolutionary symbols, particularly the AK47 and images of other Soviet military hardware, such as tanks, and a variety of action-images of guerrilla fighters. The Rhodesian Viscount plane famously downed by ZPRA anti-aircraft gunners using a Soviet-supplied Strela-2 missile features on more than one cover. Guerrillas are often anonymous – depicted through silhouettes, long distance shots of training and drill or reproductions of prints from liberation movement propaganda and poster art.  The covers also feature well-known contemporary photos or portraits of ZAPU’s top political and military leaders – the late Joshua Nkomo, ZPRA commander Nikita Mangena and others. A quick glance at the covers provides an instant gallery of ZAPU’s and ZPRA’s own cast of eminent war heroes, many of whom are not well known to wider Zimbabwean publics, alongside texts from ordinary ZPRA soldiers, and those who rebelled against leaders. Wartime imagery is often positioned as background to recent portraits of male author/subject dressed in suit and tie, perhaps intended to convey postwar achievements and standing.

ZPRA cadres’ bitter experiences after independence are not a strong visual presence, despite weighing so heavily in many books themselves. Irvine Sibhona’s Nation Born of Violence, however, does convey this more directly than most - perhaps because it was written and published recently and in Britain rather than Zimbabwe.  The front cover splattered blood red takes on meaning beyond the sacrifices of the 1970s when combined with back cover text that specifies the violence as ‘unending’. On the back, it describes the hunting down of former ZPRA cadres after independence, including senior officers in the Zimbabwe National Army such as Sibhona himself, and the book itself revisits his own horrendous detention and torture in Brady Barracks. It casts Gukurahundi – the state’s massacres of ZAPU supporters in the 1980s – as rooted in the violent conflicts between ZPRA and ZANLA in the 1970s that threatened ZPRA’s very existence. Given this continuity and many veterans’ current disaffection with ZANU(PF), it is hardly surprising that only one book bears an image of the late former President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe (late in life with raised fist, clad in baseball cap and other campaigning attire).  ZPRA veterans’ nationalist politics comes across strongly, however, though again there are exceptions.  Ngwana Zwangendaba’s memoir – also written and published outside Zimbabwe – uses Ndebele ethnic emblems alongside those of ZAPU’s international allies to convey his membership of the Matabeleland secessionist organization Mthwakazi – an organization that emerged in the early 2000s with a following among youth and in the diaspora rather than the main ZPRA veteran organizations.

The debt to allies, not only the USSR, but also frontline states is conveyed in titles and visually in a variety of ways beyond images of weapons or flags. One cover has a map focused centrally on Zambia rather than Zimbabwe, using a lens that extends southwest to Angola and Botswana, following the author’s own wartime journeys. Tshinga Dube chose as his memoir title Quiet Flows the Zambezi, invoking the epic novel Quiet flows the Don, by the Russian author Mikael Sholokov that deals with Cossack experiences through the upheavals of World War One, the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Dube was among the many ZPRA cadres who spent time in the Soviet Union, first through military training in Moscow in 1964, then at Madi University, when he became ZAPU representative for the hundreds of ZAPU students there in the early 1970s.

These internationalist solidarities produced distinctive genres of art that have their legacies across the region. The cover image chosen for Andrew Nyathi’s memoir Tomorrow is Built Today, is a painting by George Nene, a ZAPU guerrilla and one of Zimbabwe’s most renowned artists of early independence, whose pictures featured on postage stamps and are displayed in Zimbabwe’s National Gallery.  Nene’s artistic style developed in gaol in Botswana, where he served (with many others) a lengthy sentence for carrying arms. He was tutored in detention by South African artist Thami Mnyele who was a key figure in Medu Arts, the collective of cultural workers comprised of South African exiles and others based in Botswana from 1978.  Medu’s graphic art was hugely influential in the visual cultures of southern African liberation movements and solidarity campaigns.  It invoked the collective’s internationalism and revolutionary socialism, with influences that have been attributed to Soviet and anti-fascist posters, Latin American muralists, and print workshop traditions including the artistic output of the Harlem renaissance. Mnyele himself later joined MK in Angola. The painting of Nene’s that features on the cover shows these stylistic influences – the image is split with the top half depicting ‘tomorrow’ being built via determined and industrious computer technicians, students and construction workers, on top of an image of the brutality of war and guerrillas’ sacrifices.  Published in 1990, the book is rooted in the idealism of the cooperative movement of Zimbabwe’s early independence years: ZPRA veterans returned from the Soviet Union enthusiastic about the potential of collective production and set up cooperatives in the assembly points. Nyathi himself was a member of a non-partisan farming cooperative called Simukai. For ZPRA veterans, however, any nostalgia for Zimbabwe’s cooperative movement is also tainted by grievances against the ruling party.  This is because ZPRA’s farms - purchased with funds donated by guerrillas at the assembly points in 1980 - were seized by the ZANU(PF) government in the 1980s, and efforts to secure their return or to compensate individuals for their losses have so far been unsuccessful.  

JoAnn McGregor