The Politics of the Dead in Zimbabwe 2000-2020
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for the African Griot about your book The Politics of the Dead in Zimbabwe 2000-2020! Can you please provide a brief overview of your book?
This book is about a multi-faceted, cultural-political phenomena in Zimbabwe that I call ‘the politics of the dead’. While this phenomena resonates widely across the region and beyond, this book explores various particular forms that it has taken in Zimbabwe over recent decades. These all turn, in some way, upon the demanding, problematic and uncertain presence of human corporeal and/or immaterial remains; and, ultimately, on the unfinished nature of death itself. The book has seven substantive chapters, which are top and tailed by an introduction setting the book in its broader comparative, thematic and theoretical contexts, and a conclusion which ties its strands together and points towards new areas of potential future research. Given that the intersection of politics and spirit possession/mediumship in Zimbabwe is already a very well-worn path of scholarship, the book deliberately begins by centering the role of human material remains in its politics of heritage, commemoration and violence; as unsettled bones and tortured bodies, and the proper (or not) transformation from one to the other that funerary and burial processes normally involve. Engaging critically with the ‘materiality’ and ‘corporeality’ turns in anthropology and related disciplines, it discusses the deepening salience of demands for the exhumation and reburial of human remains dating to different periods of violence during Zimbabwe’s colonial and postcolonial periods, stretching from the unsettled dead of Zimbabwe’s liberation war, to the silenced victims of the gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland and the Midlands in the 1980s, and more recently, to the brutalised bodies and interrupted funerals of devastating election violence in the 2000s, especially 2008. The core focus here is what bones, bodies and human substances do, and how these corporealities shape ongoing contestations over Zimbabwe’s troubled and unresolved violent pasts. A central theme is the politics of uncertainty that derives from the excessivity of human material and immaterial remains. In chapters four, five and six the focus shifts towards the uncertainties of the immaterial, in the form of rumours about assassination plots and what I call ‘political accidents’, and a reconsideration of the uncertain ‘precariousness’ of spirit possession and mediumship. These chapters lead towards a larger argument about uncertain and unfinished nature of death more generally. The book finishes by discussing Robert Mugabe’s contested and unfinished death and burial in 2019, which in many ways epitomised Zimbabwe’s politics of the dead in which he himself had been a key player.
How did you decide to focus on this topic? Has the anthropology of death always interested you?
Death has long been a subject of fascination for many anthropologists but my route towards this topic was initially ethnographic. As far back as the early 2000s, when I was researching the politics of landscape and heritage around Great Zimbabwe, I was spending a lot of time with spirit mediums, and I often heard their concerns about the spirits of the unsettled war dead haunting war veterans and relatives of the dead, and increasingly animating Zimbabwean politics. Later I became more aware of the emergence of liberation heritage in Zimbabwe and the region, and how this related in complex ways to long standing contestations surrounding commemoration and unresolved legacies of past violence. More theoretically, as the 2000s progressed, I became increasingly interested in debates about materiality and how this related to a growing concern across the region and beyond with bones and human material remains; what Florence Bernault (working on colonial encounters in Equatorial Guinea) has called ‘carnal fetishism’. I soon realised that my growing interest in these subjects as they related to Zimbabwe were mirrored in a wider zeitgeist of concern with questions of human materiality, or rather corporeality. With some excellent colleagues in Edinburgh, including my close friend John Harries, who researchs similar issues in Newfoundland, and my former PhD supervisor, Jeanne Cannizzo, we ran a small workshop in 2008, and set up a research network that became known as the Bones Collective. Through this network we were able to establish some fascinating collaborations with other scholars working across many diverse contexts, looking at what we framed as the ‘affective presence’ and ‘emotive materiality’ of human remains, bones, bodies and bodily substances. The idea was very much to move away from older discussions that tended to focus upon what bones and death mean, towards thinking about what and how they do stuff in diverse contexts. Only later did I return to rethinking spirit possession and mediumship, which had been central concerns of other research I was doing in the 2000s (The Silence of Great Zimbabwe 2006; Remaking Mutirikwi 2015), as related aspects of the broader phenomena of Zimbabwe’s politics of the dead. Thinking about the uncertainties and excessivities of both material and immaterial remains led me to develop one of the core arguments of the book, about the unfinished nature of death.
Why did you choose to focus on the years 2000-2020?
Much of the book was written over a ten year period between the late 2000s and the late 2010s. For a while I thought about focusing it on the 2000-2015 period. There was even a moment around 2012 when I considered prioritising the completion of this book over Remaking Mutirikwi(2015), which I was also writing at the time. In the end, though, I think I was right to wait with this one, because some of the material in its second half, particularly the sections discussing Mugabe’s death and contested burial in 2019, offered a great opportunity to bring all of the different elements of this complex phenomena together. That is why the range of years in the title is 2000-2020. Of course, some of the things discussed in the book long precede those dates, and likewise Zimbabwe’s politics of the dead is not limited to that period. Like all emergent cultural-political phenomena, particularly those so concerned with the demanding and affective presence of the past in everyday processes, politics and encounters, the politics of the dead continues to emerge, be re-forged and re-appear in different ways now. There are few clear beginnings and endings, but Mugabe’s death in 2019, and the very much unfinished contests that still surround his burial and his legacy, seemed like a good place to stop writing. Like death perhaps, books are never really finished, one just has to decide to stop writing at some appropriate point.
Is the image on your cover significant? What does it represent?
Much of the book discusses well known, high profile and highly politicised events in Zimbabwe over the last two decades. But I am also keen to stress the more quotidian, everyday aspects of Zimbabwe’s corporeal politics. Where this is clearest is chapter six, which discusses the particularly sad but powerful story of Mai Melissa, during the years before her own death, as a way of looking at the uncertainties and precarities of spirit mediumship and what I call the ‘alterity of spirits’, which too are key features of Zimbabwe’s politics of the dead. That chapter draws on ethnographic material drawn from decades of fieldwork with the Rukasha family in a particular area of rural Masvingo dating back to the mid 1990s. The cover image of the book is of the grave of Mike Rukasha as it was being dug in 2006, during a time when HIV/AIDS deaths in the area were reaching a peak. Some aspects of Mike’s death and burial are discussed in chapters two and six. For some time, I did wonder about whether I should use an image of Zimbabwe’s well known and very controversial National Heroes Acre in Harare, for the book’s cover. Zimbabwe’s National Heroes complex is certainly a hugely important aspect of its politics of the dead, and it is discussed at length in the book. But that image, or others like it, have been used on the cover of many other books already. The argument I am seeking to develop in this book does not limit Zimbabwe’s politics of the dead to its politics of commemoration, however prominent that has been, but rather stretches beyond it to explore how this phenomena appears in other, sometimes quite disparate and more everyday contexts. I wanted to emphasise these points and that is why I chose this image over one of National Heroes Acre.
Can you tell us about Chapter 7 After Mugabe: Burying Bob, why is this important? What does the chapter represent and mean to Zimbabwe?
In one of the earlier drafts of the book, this section appears as ‘the epilogue’, but then the peer reviewers and the editor suggested it should be a chapter on its own. I think they were right, and it is better where it is now. As an ‘epilogue’ I originally wrote this as a kind of ‘catch up’ section – ie: here are some of the significant events that have happened since the main chapters were written. But of course, what is being discussed here is more important than simply recounting recent events like the ‘soft coup’ that finally removed Mugabe from office in 2017 – his first death some scholars say – or his contested death and burial two years later. They are more important for several reasons. Although the politics of the dead in Zimbabwe is older, bigger and more complex, diverse and contradictory than the politics of one man could ever be, it is also clear that Robert Mugabe was definitely one of the key architects of some prominent aspects of it, like the commemorative politics of Zimbabwe’s National Heroes complex. And he was in many respects one of its most significant players, even if some of its aspects, like exhumations, for example, were really not to his own taste. Therefore, discussing what has happened to Zimbabwe’s politics of the dead since his replacement as president, and what aspects have been continued, or changed, or not, by the successor regime of President Mnangagwa, is certainly significant and probably worthy of more than an epilogue. More than that, however, the contestations that surrounded Mugabe’s own burial, in 2019, and again in 2020 and 2021, which are discussed in this chapter, in many ways perfectly capture some of the key dimensions of the larger politics of the dead discussed in the book, particularly about the potent uncertainties and excessivities of human corporeality, and about the unfinished nature of death. Academics, it is often said, should stay far away from making any predictions, even when pressured to do so by journalists, as often happens. In this case, however, I have been startled by how the ongoing contestations surrounding Mugabe’s death have epitomised some of central arguments developed in this book. Particularly those to do with the unfinished nature of death.
If there is one thing you really want your readers to take away from your work, what is it?
Books, indeed all research, are always collaborative and multivocal. These are brilliant aspects of the intellectual work they involve and should be nurtured and celebrated. This is one reason why I always read the acknowledgements page first when I open a new book. Books are multi-vocal because they always carry the views and perspectives and contributions of many people, not just the author. But they are also multivocal in how they to speak to different debates and issues at the same time. This book certainly does that, and this makes answering your question rather difficult. There are, for example, important reflections in the book on the emergence of ‘Liberation Heritage’ across the region, which many scholars will find important. There are also important discussions about how the materialities of the past find traction and continue to shape politics in the present. Obviously, its emphasis on what and how human corporealities do, as bones, as leaky bodies and as transforming substances, are significant for how we understand how violence and post-violence can be politically salient. There is also a warning here about the increasingly common tendency amongst some people working in post-violence contexts to assume that material interventions involving human remains – such as exhumations and reburials, but perhaps also the growing demands for restitution – are necessarily cathartic and a route towards some kind of final closure, healing and resolution. This has become a very common notion in some contexts, and certainly in Zimbabwe. My point is not to deny that this can be so. There can certainly be cathartic effects from such interventions, and it is definitly not for me to assert otherwise to the many, many people across Zimbabwe, and in other post-conflict and postcolonial situations, who still long to know what happened to their loved ones and continue to make demands for some kind of restorative return and resolution. Rather the point here is that care needs to be taken about what is expected and promised of exhumations, reburials and other forms of the material intervention involving human remains. Some of the core arguments that writing this book has led me to, about the excessivity of human material remains, the alterity of spirit and about how death always remains potentially unfinished and resolved, suggests that in many cases there can be no final resolution, no final closure to past violence and problematic deaths.
There are also other significant take-aways from the book which will interest anthropologists and other scholars; such as, for example, arguments in chapters three and four about how the political affects and effects of rumours turn on their uncertainty, their ambiguity and double-ness, and sometimes their duplicity. That the politics that they do is always multi-sided in ways that are definitely implicated in, but also go beyond, a simple politics of contested meanings; and often have much to do with performative stylistics of power, merging bio- and necro-politics in complex ways. This is particularly true of rumours about assassinations and death, which have a certain longevity and salience in Zimbabwe, and reoccur in different ways elsewhere across the region, such as Kenya, for example. Likewise there is an argument developed in chapters five and six about the precarity of mediumship and the alterity of spirit which will interest some. The suggestion here is that the extensive scholarship on spirit mediumship and possession in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere, has tended sometimes to take mediums’ own narratives of their relationship with the spirits that possess them a little too much at face value, and that perhaps there is a greater uncertainty about spirits, even among mediums themselves, than ethnographers have often surmised. As I was working on chapters five and six, I had cause to rethink some of my own previous work and assumptions about spirit mediumship in Zimbabwe. This may seem like a rather particular point, but it links to what I think are some of the core arguments developed across the whole book about the uncertainties and excessivities of material and immaterial existence, and the problematic and hard-to-pin-down entanglements between them. All of this becomes acutely revealed through the rupture of death, which in turn demands but usually defies any final closure or resolution. This aspect of the unfinished nature death is something that I suspect is not at all peculiar to the politics of the dead in Zimbabwe, but quite likely recurs in many different contexts, and maybe even everywhere. I am keen to see what use, if any, is made of this kind of analysis by other scholars working in other contexts, because I think the time has come for anthropology to turn again towards addressing some of the larger comparative questions about what it is to be human. Too long as anthropologists we have been wringing our hands with the anxieties raised, quite rightly, by postcolonial scholars and the ‘Writing Culture’ generation, and their acute concern with positionality and the politics of representation. These issues remain hugely important, but just as anthropology cannot only be about the politics of representation and meaning, and there is a need to engage with other ways of thinking about how and what material stuff does, perhaps the time has also come to again ask bigger comparative questions about recurring human experiences, such as, death. This is what the analysis at the end of the book tries to point towards.
What do you have planned next?
This is my third monograph about Zimbabwe, where I have been researching for over two decades now. So over the last five or six years I have begun to do new fieldwork in a different country and a different context; urban east Africa, specifically Nairobi. Many of the same kinds of questions and issues that have always driven my research continue to concern me, particularly the nexus between everyday politics, time, landscape and what the stuff of stuff does, enables or shapes. But I am also following up new ideas that have come out of more recent experiences working in Nairobi; particularly questions about the uncertainty of material existence as a fundamental aspect of being human, and life, but also exploring new forms of collaborative intellectual work with creatives and artists. Nairobi Becoming is a collaborative, experimental project involving artists, writers and scholars that has involved a series of exhibitions in Nairobi (2015-2018) and is now coming to a close with the completion of a collaborative ethnographic portrait of the city, which will hopefully come out in the next year or so. Related to this, I am also working on a new, individual monograph about Nairobi, tentatively titled Nairobi Materialities, which is beginning to make some head way. Much of the fieldwork for that project has now been done, so soon it will be time to begin writing again. I have a few other emerging and future projects in mind too, but I am going to keep quiet about those until there is more to say about them!
JOOST FONTEIN is Professor of Anthropology, University of Johannesburg. He was previously Director of the British Institute in Eastern Africa and Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. His books include Remaking Mutirikwi: Landscape, Water and Belonging (James Currey, 2015), shortlisted for the African Studies Association 2016 Herskovits Prize.