BSR: Who will bell the cat?


Every family has one like him. He holds centre-stage at every occasion. He speaks on behalf of the family at every gathering not because he has superior qualifications in the arts of communication and public speaking but merely on account of seniority.

However, even if he was endowed with these gifts, there is a point after which they begin to wane with the passage of time. He becomes slow and incoherent. The gaffes increase in frequency. The “senior moments” become a regular affair. The jokes become embarrassing. Every speech becomes a nightmarish experience for the entire family.

When he speaks, every member of the family holds their breath until the moment he is safely back in his seat. But it’s almost sure that he will drop a clanger during the speech. He will probably disclose in public things that are supposed to be kept in the family closet. He will forget things and make bad jokes.

“Mudhara vakura,” (Age has caught up with father), fellow villagers will say to each other, acknowledging the corrosive effects of time upon the faculties of a former maestro.

Afterwards, if you happen to walk within earshot of a group of villagers in conversation, you can hear them whisper to each other, “Mavanzwa zvavanga votaura?” (Did you hear the kind of things he was saying in his speech?), shaking their heads as they ruminate over the graveyard speech on their way back to the homestead.

“Ko vanodarirei vakomana kuvarega vachitaura?” (Why are the younger men still allowing him to make public speeches?) some of them ask, echoing the general sentiment that the old chap is no longer fit to deliver public speeches.

“Ivo havaoni kuti hazvichaiti?” (Do they not see that it’s getting embarrassing?), they will say, accusing the younger generation of letting the family down.

“Dai vagara navo pasi” (They should sit down and have a word with him), a euphemism for “they should retire him and take over”.

At some point, the younger generation of the family will get together and decide that henceforth “Mudhara will no longer speak for the family at public gatherings.” They will all agree that it’s time for sekuru to retire.

But they face a major challenge: Who will bell the cat? Which of the rats will be brave enough to go and tie the bell around the cat’s neck? They know it’s a good idea to tell the old chap that it’s time up, but none of them has the courage to do it.

Usually, Mudhara, the family patriarch, is a stubborn character and his temperamental qualities would have increased in direct proportion to his advancing age. No, he is not given to taking advice, let alone instructions or orders from the younger ones. A difference of opinion is seen as a challenge to his authority. Asking him to step down from his duties would almost certainly be regarded as an act of humiliation and betrayal.

He might even threaten to walk away from it all. “Mukada kudaro ndinozvisiya, tinone kwamunosvika” (If you disrespect me I will leave your to deal with these things alone and then we will see what will happen), he will say, invoking a fear of the unknown knowing very well that clansmen are generally afraid of the unknown.

The critical moment is usually left to the next family gathering. Mudhara will come fully prepared to perform his duties, thinking it’s business as usual. But at the last moment, a motion concerning the speaker for the family is raised. “Saka mati ndiyani anotaura nhasi?” (So who did we say is going to speak for the family today?) someone will ask as if genuinely curious. This is usually a nephew of the family – a son of sekuru’s sister, muzukuru, who enjoys the freedom of the village and as they say among my people, he has the freedom to play with sekuru’s tail. It is he who is usually sent to bell the cat.

This is a well-rehearsed script. A suggestion is made that one of the younger members of the family will speak for the family on that occasion. One of sekuru’s younger brothers might be chosen but oft-times the baton is passed on to the sons’ generation.

“Tati vechidiki vakubatsirei mudhara, mungazvinetserai iwo majaya enyu aripo aya” (Why don’t you let the young ones help you, father? It’s their job to help you with these small things), one of his younger brothers will say politely, skilfully packaging the enforced retirement as an offer of assistance. Handling this transition is a delicate exercise, one that requires diplomacy and an agreeable dose of banter. The egos of the elders are fragile.

Taken completely by surprise, the old chap will find himself terribly under-prepared for this moment and without any significant allies. He might offer some resistance, insisting that he is still very capable of performing his duties as head of the family. But he will be outnumbered. That is precisely the moment that power slips away. It is the passing of the proverbial baton, as one generation gives way to another.

Eventually, Mudhara comes to terms with his new circumstances. He might remember that this is, after all, how his generation took over from the generation before theirs. He settles into a ceremonial role as head of the clan but without an active role. Over time, he might even realise that it is better, after all, having been freed from the rigours of active leadership.

So who, in our national village, will bell the cat? Let us examine what the villagers are whispering each time they leave a gathering.

Of Cockroaches and Mortuaries

This week, President Emmerson Mnangagwa was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Two of his anecdotes were widely circulated on social media. Both were ominous.

The first was his reference to cockroaches. “Wash the dishes after supper to prevent an infestation of cockroaches in your homes,” he said, before issuing a stern warning. “There will come a time when we will send village inspectors to check for cockroaches in your homes. If we find a home with cockroaches we will start by issuing a warning. But eventually we will arrest you if cockroaches are found in your home.” 

Mnangagwa’s supporters say their man was joking. His critics disagree. If it was a joke, it was a sick one, they charge. Others however see an ominous warning, with cockroaches representing a metaphor for political opponents. Is that an over-reaction? The fact that this was interpreted as sinister is indicative of the mistrust that people have towards their president. The concerns are not without foundation. Zimbabweans remember that this is not the first time that Mnangagwa has used cockroaches as a grievous figure of speech.

For example, he used the cockroach metaphor shortly after independence, describing suspected dissidents in the Matebeleland region and what the government would do to them. The outcome was a genocide commonly referred to as Gukurahundi. Ironically, that speech was made at a political rally in early March 1983. The Chronicle newspaper reported it on 5 March 1983 as follows: “Likening the dissidents to cockroaches and bugs, the minister said the bandit menace had reached such epidemic proportion that the government had to bring ‘DDT’ to get rid of the bandits.” The dissidents were the cockroaches and DDT, a well-known agricultural pesticide, was a metaphor for the Fifth Brigade, a crack North Korean-trained military unit which was deployed in the region. An estimated 20,000 people were killed during the Gukurahundi genocide.

It is hardly surprising that Mnangagwa’s latest cockroaches speech in Masvingo was met with gasps of astonishment and disgust by those who watched it. Even if it was an attempt at dark humour,  how could he be so insensitive given that hideous history? It also raised more doubts about his sincerity concerning the Gukurahundi issue. He has given the impression that he wants the matter dealt with by engaging the people of Matebeleland. Those attempts have not gone very well. But one would expect him to be more careful in his public speeches to avoid rubbing salt into existing wounds. But he casually jokes about sending inspectors to flush out culprits who are harbouring cockroaches, the same violent language that he used during Gukurahundi.

Some are concerned that the metaphor represents an ominous threat to rural communities, with cockroaches as a metaphor for opposition supporters and village inspectors representing the State and ZANU PF agents. This is also not without foundation. Previous elections have been marred by acts of violence and intimidation against opposition supporters. This reached a peak after the 2008 general elections when a military-led Operation Makavhotera Papi (Operation Who Did You Vote For?) was carried out and left a trail of destruction in rural communities. Some Zimbabweans have also drawn comparisons with the use of the “cockroach” metaphor in the events that preceded the Rwanda genocide in 1994. It is an ugly metaphor. A leader should know better and avoid language that lauds violence and evokes dark images of a ghastly past.

Prizes for a “cool mortuary”

In another speech, as Mnangagwa was opening a mortuary at a hospital in Masvingo he made another bizarre speech which left many observers shaking their heads in shock and disgust.

“When I was a Member of Parliament for Kwekwe, I constructed a state of the art mortuary with 12 bays, very cool inside,” he said with some satisfaction, “So I offered a prize to the first family to bring their deceased relative to that mortuary. As it happened, someone had already died at the hospital, so that family won the prize. In this mortuary, there are six bays and they are very cool!” with the tone of someone describing a beautiful thing.

Many people were concerned by the apparent pleasure with which he addressed the morbid subject. It did not escape the memories of many that Kwekwe had seen a lot of violence during the election campaigns in the 2000s as Mnangagwa lost to the MDC’s Blessing Chebundo.

However, as I commented immediately afterwards on social media, the president’s comments were not inconsistent with Mnangagwa’s approach to the subject of morbidity. “The gentleman finds comfort in the subject of morbidity in a manner that is quite disturbing. Remember his “kuipa kwechimwe kunaka kwechimwe” (it wasn’t all bad as some good had emerged from the disaster) comment in the wake of the devastating floods in Manicaland last year? These aren’t random gaffes. It comes naturally. It’s normal to him”.

For Mnangagwa, Cyclone Idai whose devastating floods had killed hundreds of people in Manicaland, including children in 2019 wasn’t all bad. He was casually telling a traumatised community that the many donations from around the world meant some good had come out of the calamity. The insensitivity and lack of empathy were mind-boggling. But as we learnt this week, he was also happy to offer a prize to the first family to bring a body of their loved one to the new mortuary that he had built.

This is the same man who once described leaving ZANU PF as the equivalent of a leaf that falls off the tree. It shrivels into nothingness, he explained, the metaphor painting a dire warning to rural communities he was addressing. He has also exhorted his supporters to “rakasha” (pulverise) his critics and opponents on social media. The same man has threatened to use “shamhu ine munyu” (marinated rod) to critics and opponents wishing to demonstrate against him. These are not idle words.

Twice in August 2018 and January 2019, he has ordered soldiers to crush demonstrations leading to the killing of civilians. No-one has been held responsible for it. He was the Minister of State Security during Gukurahundi when he made the infamous remarks about “cockroaches and DDT” referring to dissidents and the army unit sent into communities.

Mnangagwa has also exhibited an affinity for religious metaphors, which believers find unsettling. These metaphors also reveal a megalomaniac character. At one meeting in South Africa, he compared his position vis-à-vis his critics with that of God and Satan. “We will not be swayed by negative forces. Even the Lord upstairs could not keep his house in order,” he said to applause from his supporters. “He had Satan, so these things happen, but He still remains there as the Creator.”

During the election campaign in 2018, Mnangagwa claimed his government was better than Heaven. “If you have 10 cattle plus four calves you have 40 (sic). But you only have to pay for the first 10 cattle. Where else would you get a better government?” he asked, before declaring, “Even Heaven doesn’t have such a government. Ours is truly a great government” The metaphors reveal a man who has a very high, if misplaced, opinion of himself. The inflated ego isn’t helped by political acolytes and sycophants in religious robes who regularly describe him as having been chosen by God.

Metaphors as political discourse

Metaphors are a form of political discourse. They can be used to sustain a system of government – monarchical rule, authoritarianism or democracy. An authoritarian regime will deploy metaphors that reflect superiority, difference and distance between the rulers and the ruled. Scholar Richard D. Anderson, Jr. has done some interesting work on the use of metaphors in political discourse looking at the transition from the old Soviet Union to Russia. Carlos G. Toledo-Parada has also done similar work concerning the use of metaphoric language by the late Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet.

In his 2001 analysis, Anderson showed how “metaphors may be able to act as cues to social identity by virtue of their capacity to shape what else people think about when they read or hear about politics”. In an undemocratic system, metaphors condition citizens to believe in the difference between rulers and ruled. By contrast, in a democracy metaphors cause people to think in terms of choices and to identify with political candidates. Thus it is possible, through metaphors to observe the authoritarian and democratic inclinations of the person wielding political power.

Toledo-Parada examined Pinochet’s use of metaphors during his long dictatorship in Chile and observed, “The regime rhetorically and forcefully framed the conversation in terms of a state of war, which legitimized a human rights violations that left a toll of thousands of people dead, tortured, and “disappeared.” Metaphors were employed to fortify the authoritarian regime and justify the draconian methods it used.

Soft as wool or wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Against this background, Mnangagwa’s preferred choice of metaphors is not surprising. The religious metaphors place his regime beyond the ordinary human experience – creating a distance between the regime and the citizens. “Kutonga” is his favoured way of describing his style of governance which communicates rulership rather than “kutungamira”, which would suggest leading. “Tichingotonga!” he says it with such arrogance and relish, which communicates continuous and uninterrupted rulership.

He shows a fondness for metaphors that convey dominance, violence, destruction, death, pain and extermination. He used these metaphors as a young man during Gukurahundi in the 1980s and, without flinching, continues to use them now in old age.

A brief review shows that they are generally metaphors of violence (kurakasha; shamhu ine munyu), metaphors of death and extermination (use of pesticide; cool mortuaries; prizes for the first body in the mortuary; crushing cockroaches), metaphors of dehumanisation (cockroaches; shrivelled leaves; critics and rivals as Satan), metaphors of omnipresence (village inspectors to flush out cockroaches; him as God) suggesting that an all-seeing and ever-present Big Brother is always watching.

These metaphors plant images in the minds of the audience and act as coded language for their political experience. If you use the language of cockroaches, people who have prior experience of what it means to be called a cockroach know exactly what it means. If you refer to village inspectors going round every village to flush out cockroaches, people who have experienced violent door-to-door political campaigns know what this means. If the ruler whose regime has killed makes casual reference to beautiful and cool mortuaries, the audience gets the message being communicated. People who have been beaten up and tortured know what it means when the ruler uses the metaphor of kurakasha and shamhu ine munyu.

As Anderson argues, regimes that are transitioning to democracy must show a reduction in the use of violent metaphors. “Transitions to democracy must begin by dismantling the metaphorical apparatus of the old regime” argues Anderson. The discourse conveyed by Mnangagwa’s metaphors is consistent with their style of ruling and the authoritarian tendencies of the regime which is quick to administer violence in response to any challenge. It’s a far cry from a favourite metaphor of “soft as wool” which he often used to describe himself during his ministerial career. Ironically, one of the English language’s most common metaphorical expressions of deception warns people to be careful of “wolves in sheep’s clothing”.


As already stated, it would be a mistake to see Mnangagwa’s morbid comments as mere gaffes. They reveal the character of the man. If they demonstrate an unsettling affinity for violence and morbidity that’s because these are very light subjects for him and there is a purpose served by communicating them. The way he talks so casually about pain and suffering; the metaphors of pests and crushing them suggest a character that is very much at home with violence and darkness. If they are gaffes, they are too regular and too often to be out of character.

Back in the village, the younger generation usually recognises when it’s time to put a stop the embarrassment. They have devised subtle methods to bell the cat. Mudhara, the family patriarch is skilfully eased off the scene making sure his ego remains unhurt. He might not like it, but eventually, it becomes obvious that even he cannot resist the tide of time and popular opinion.

Every family reaches that moment at one point or another. Every family has had to deal with it. They just have to find a way to bell the cat. The ZANU PF family had that moment three years ago but handled it in a manner that was not only disagreeable but created more problems than it solved. This is why it still faces the same problem.