HARARE // At the summit of a hill overlooking Harare sits the National Heroes Acre, a hallowed cemetery where 81 of Zimbabwe's leading political and historical figures lie buried. Originally, the polished black granite shrine was meant to be the final resting place for those who led Zimbabwe's liberation war against British rule in the 1970s. Over time, others who did not fight in that war, but were deemed to have contributed to the country's post-independence development, were also declared national heroes and buried there.
Zanu-PF, the party of the president, Robert Mugabe, is the only body that can bestow national hero status and reserve for those conferred a place at the revered graveyard. But not everyone whose remains are interred there deserves to be considered a hero, said Maureen Chimpanda, an official at the opposition Zimbabwe People's Democratic Party. She said some find themselves there because they were connected to Zanu-PF, she said, not necessarily because they were respected national servants.
"The National Heroes Acre is a Zanu-PF heroes' acre; there is nothing national about it. I do not know if national heroes are only found in Zanu-PF," Ms Chimpanda said. She urged Zanu-PF to broaden its definition of national heroism and adopt a more transparent and representative system through which national heroes are vetted and declared. While there is no debating the status of legends such as Vitalis Zvinavashe, a liberation fighter, some Zimbabweans believe that other figures, including Susan Tsvangirai, the late wife of the prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, and Ndabaningi Sithole, who founded Zanu, now Zanu-PF, should be buried at Heroes Acre.
The Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu), a political party that fought against white rule and became a minority partner in a 1987 unity deal with Zanu-PF, says some of its deserving leaders are overlooked or are recognised late. Samukele Hadebe, a columnist for Weekly Agenda, a pro-Zapu newspaper, accused Zanu-PF of stalling in giving national hero status to Akim Ndlovu, founding commander of the Zapu military wing in 1965, who died this month.
"One would have thought that the nation has had enough of this dilly-dally and reluctance to acknowledge hero status to Zapu," Mr Hadebe wrote recently. "How else can one explain the indifference and delays in declaring what is anyway a foregone?" Zanu-PF took three days to declare Ndlovu a national hero, explaining that communication problems made it impossible for the decision to be made earlier. Normally, it takes a day for the decision to be made.
Methuseli Moyo, a Zapu spokesman, in a statement said Zanu-PF must give the role of conferring national heroes to a neutral and broad committee of eminent Zimbabweans. Nelson Chamisa, the spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mr Tsvangirai's party, which formed a unity government with Zanu-PF in February, said Patrick Kombayi, one of its elected senators who died recently, had unquestionable war credentials, but was not even considered.
Since its formation in 1999, the MDC has boycotted national heroes' funerals, saying attending them endorsed Zanu-PF's narrow definition of heroism. However, Mr Tsvangirai attended Zvinavashe's burial in March, the first at the site since the formation of the five-month-old unity government. His presence was welcomed across the political divide as a sign that he respected national events, after years of being accused of being unpatriotic.
But as the debate continues, a respected nationalist and one-time defence minister, Enos Nkala, said he does not want to be buried at the controversial shrine. "I am not going to Heroes Acre. It is Mugabe's shrine," said Mr Nkala. Now there is an inclusive government some Zimbabweans believe national honours like these must involve all. Others say the shrine must close. "My honest opinion is that it [Heroes Acre] should just be shut down," an unnamed political analyst told the local Financial Gazette newspaper in March.
"It will cause problems. The future government will not accept it. Going forward, it is not sustainable. It is clouded by payback, factionalism and so on." Ephraim Masawi, a Zanu-PF spokesman, denied that the National Heroes Acre is a preserve of Zanu-PF members, saying some "professional soldiers" who served on the side of governments in civil wars in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s also lie there.
To suggestions that Zanu-PF must make way for a neutral body to designate national hero status, Mr Masawi said: "We will take that up with senior party members so that there is no impression that the National Heroes Acre is Zanu-PF property." email@example.com