Several questionable characters have already been buried at this national shrine which is supposed to embody the country’s heroic legacy during and after the 1970s war of liberation.
The fact that Sabina was not actively involved in the liberation war, and was not outstanding during her time as a politician in Zanu PF after Independence, has strengthened calls for an overhaul of the national hero status system. Veterans of the guerilla war and those who closely followed developments during and after the war say the criteria used, where the Zanu PF politburo sits to decide such a national matter, needed revision.
Under the National Heroes Act Mugabe holds the discretion to declare national heroes. That Mugabe has failed to recognise some outstanding Zimbabweans as national heroes has ignited debate that this status is being abused to reward loyal political allies and relatives.
An often cited example is that of Jairos Jiri. Jiri dedicated his life and personal resources to uplift the lives of the disabled and formed what is now one of the biggest welfare organisations in the country but was not conferred with national hero status.
Most of those buried at Heroes’ Acre are politicians who participated in the liberation war. These were mainly men and women who took leadership roles, in various political parties and organisations which were formed during the 1966 to 1979 war years.
However, as history has shown, participation in the liberation war is no guarantee that one would be conferred with national hero status. Ndabaningi Sithole and James Chikerema’s cases stand out.
Sithole was at one time the leader of Zanu during the liberation war but was elbowed out in a coup that installed Mugabe in the late 70s. Chikerema was one of the early nationalists to fight colonialism but fell out of favour when he left Zapu to form the Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe (Frolizi) in 1971, a party considered divisive as it attracted members from both Zapu and Zanu.
Sabina became the sixth woman to be conferred with national heroine status.
All women buried at Heroes Acre, except Sabina, were spouses of liberation war leaders.
These are Sarah (Sally) Mugabe (wife of President Mugabe), Johanna Nkomo (wife of the late Vice President Joshua Nkomo), Julia Zvobgo (wife of the late firebrand politician Edison Zvobgo), Sunny Ntombiyelanga Takawira (wife of the late Zanu vice president Leopold Takawira) and Ruth Chinamano (wife of the late Zapu vice president Josiah Chinamano).
The Zanu PF politburo declared Sabina a national heroine without much debate hours after her death, yet the same party has in some cases taken ages to decide on some people with impeccable war credentials.
There are people like Lookout Masuku and Wilfort Lizart Sibanda who were buried in Bulawayo because the politburo took so long to decide their status.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC says cases like these have forced it to list the issue of Zanu PF’s unilateral decision-making on national hero status as one of the contentious matters affecting the coalition government.
On November 3 last year, Magwegwe Member of Parliament Felix Sibanda moved a motion that parliament set up a committee “which will examine the matter and make appropriate recommendations to the House”.
Sibanda, from Tsvangirai’s party, proposed “a non-partisan body could be established and mandated to determine and confer hero-status to all deserving citizens across the political divide. To recommend and commend to the proposed non-partisan body to confer Hero-status to all unsung Heroes/Heroines across the political divide.”
The proposal, if adopted, would withdraw the mandate to discuss the hero status from the Zanu-PF Politburo.
Former top Zanu PF politburo member and now leader of Zapu, Dumiso Dabengwa, said the concept of the national hero status was noble and limited to liberation war combatants when first mooted after Independence.
“However, there was a time when we said to ourselves, we think we are being selfish by only conferring the hero’s status to those who fought in the war,” said Dabengwa. “There are heroes who are outstanding in other fields and the criteria should be changed to accept these types of heroes.”
“It was agreed that it should be someone who excelled during and after the war,” said Dabengwa. “Then we also took into account the performance after Independence whether the member remained constantly involved in the development of the nation.”
Dabengwa said the contribution made during the liberation war was important as was the case with George Nyandoro, who despite serving as the Lands, Natural Resources and Rural Development minister in the abortive 1979 internal settlement government (Zimbabwe-Rhodesia) was declared a national hero.
Nyandoro was declared national hero “because of his contribution in the City Youth League,” Dabengwa said. The City Youth League was later named the African National Congress Youth League, the first political organisation that gave birth to nationalist movements.
However, while Nyandoro came out unblemished by his involvement with the short-lived Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, Sithole, Chikerema and Abel Muzorewa, leader of the African National Council, were not declared national heroes.
Academic, publisher and former civil servant Ibbo Mandaza said the current leadership had proven that they were unable to resolve the controversy around who should be a national hero.
“What is needed is to come up with national guidelines and a national criterion that goes beyond political parties,” said Mandaza. “So far this issue has remained controversial and if you take Jairos Jiri for example who has been left out yet he qualified. Heroes should cut across the spectrum be it politics, cultural social work or sports but highlighting the national leadership,” said Mandaza.
There are many ways of honouring heroes including naming national institutions, main roads, schools and towns after the heroes. In Zimbabwe an attempt to name schools after prominent people and heroes faced massive resistance further exposing the controversy around who qualifies to be a national hero.