The politics of the dead: living heritage, bones and commemoration in Zimbabwe

J. Fontein

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The purpose of this paper is to explore the ambivalent agency of bones as both ‘persons’ and ‘objects’ in the politics of heritage and commemoration in Zimbabwe. It discusses a recent ‘commemorative’ project which has focused on the identification, reburial, ritual cleansing and memorialisation of the human remains of the liberation war dead, within Zimbabwe and across its borders (Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana, Angola and Tanzania). Although clearly related to ZANU PF’s rhetoric of ‘patriotic history’ (Ranger 2004b) that has emerged in the context of Zimbabwe’s continuing political crisis, this recent ‘liberation heritage’ project also sits awkwardly in the middle of the tension between these two related but somehow distinct nationalist projects of the past (heritage and commemoration). Exploring the tensions that both commemorative and heritage processes can provoke between the ‘objectifying’ effects of professional practices, the reworkings of contested ‘national’ histories, and the often angry demands of marginalised communities, kin and the dead themselves (for the restoration of sacred sites or for the return of human remains), the conclusion that this paper works towards is that the politics of dead is not exhausted by essentially contested accounts or representations of past fatal events, but must also recognise the emotive materiality and affective presence of human bones in themselves. Engaging with recent anthropological discussions about materiality and the agency of objects, it is suggested that in the ambivalent agency of bones, both as extensions of the consciousness of the dead, as spirit ‘subjects’ or persons which make demands on the living, but also as unconscious ‘objects’ or ‘things’ that retort to, and provoke responses from the living, the tensions and contradictions of commemoration, heritage and the politics of the dead are revealed.
Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Pages (from-to)1-27
Number of pages27
JournalASA Online
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 10 Aug 2009

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