Southern Zimbabwe: Ending an overdue myth

Welshman Ncube

Welshman Ncube

The Other Side with Nathaniel Manheru
I hope you had a good Christmas holiday, dear reader. I almost had one, until the editor reminded me The Herald was publishing today. You can imagine what it meant overcoming those mighty cramps of debauched moments, all to get back to a thinking and writing mode.

It had to be done, and here we are! As I put together this piece, I don’t know who to blame: the editor of the Daily News for poor journalism, or the British Queen for a limiting language, her English.

The Daily News had a front-page piece which described this year’s Christmas as “the worst”.

Something rang familiar, yes routinely familiar. Same time last year and the year before, I had met the same headline! Which got me to wonder: could it be that someone in the newsroom forgot the English language only provides for the comparative and the superlative, nothing more, better or worse? As in bad, worse, worst.

It forbids, or does not recognise anything more aggravated than what it provides for through its superlative adjective. Or to see it differently, urges users of the English language to be careful in their judgment, lest they box themselves into some cul-de-sac.

Pity The Daily News.

When you give yourself “the worst” Christmas three years ago, and you remain an incurable pessimist three years later, how do you hope to cover or describe any other Christmas that follow?

More worst? Meanwhile, an aimless trip to a growth point in Chinamhora revealed how enjoyable this “worst” Christmas was. You met vibrancy. You met colour. And, above all, you felt pulsating love in the air. I didn’t know one could “grab” a lover in a rural environment! “Worst” ever love invading Eden, to borrow from the Daily News!

2015 and national demons

I think 2015 must see us confronting our demons as a people. It must be a year of bold frankness, something the First Lady had imparted into our national politics, hopefully into our national trait too.

And for me, the worst demon is that of taboo: this inhibiting or curbing code that places certain areas and subject matters beyond national discourse, beyond national scrutiny. This unbending, seemingly timeless and inelastic sensitivity code which declare some areas off limit.

That has to go, to allow this nation to move on and forward. In any case, Zanu-PF — its politics and politicians — has begun to pierce this veil of sensitivity.

It has just burnt its own taboos. It has shown us embarrassing human smells can substitute fragrances of incense on the altar. After that, nothing can ever, should ever, be sacred, be unspeakable.

The man who made kings

By the way, many viewed the political goings-on in Zanu-PF as an indication that the ruling party was twitching its last, was verging on implosive self-destruction.

They missed a key shift, seismic one if you ask me. The dramatic things which happened in Zanu-PF in 2014, went well beyond that party, well beyond our country even. They broke the mould, unleashing a new type of politics, a new ethic in politics.

For the first time in our history, arguably in our subregional history, the masses found their power. And used it to make changes in officialdom. It does not matter who jumped in to ride on the wave, or who benefited in the end. The issue is people have tested their ability to definitively remonstrate with the powerful, when they go wrong.

This is unlike pre-1980, when the power of the masses came under a martial structure, with their energies directed against a foreign invader. Here we have masses acting in peace times, to resolve a domestic political problem.

A momentum has thus been created in the body-politic, one which redirects aspiring politicians not to army barracks, nit to officialdom, but to village cells and branches. It has been energy from the village, not the aura of office, which has proved the decisive maker of sub-kings.

Thank you Zanu-PF for that one! It does give depth to our nascent democracy.

So false and foul a strike

Secondly, anyone familiar with military science will tell you the time to strike is when guards change. Given the President’s age, the Western world thought Zimbabwe’s moment of changing guards had arrived.

They attacked, hoping to roll back once and for all, this most inconvenient revolution Mugabe has unleashed in global politics.

They did not expect any resistance, let alone failure. They had written off Mugabe as a political actor. Time had finally retired him, or so they thought. And Mugabe’s wily personality helps his enemies misread him.

He does it so well. Like huddling in the corner of his seemingly oversized chair, all to cut a small, very vulnerable and almost haplessly timid personality. Like to appear dozing in ways so irresistibly tempting to crown pilferers. Or the more deadly beguiling poise, allowing you to overreach, to magnify yourself beyond your frame’s limits, until you burst apart, corrupted by your own internal humours.

Dickens calls it spontaneous combustion, Krook’s fate in Bleak House. Today the West runs helter-skelter as it seeks to understand what has happened to their protégés, what is likely to happen next to their test tube case. Stephen Chan was here.

Pigou of International Crisis Group was also here. Both sought to re-read the vexatious Zimbabwean text, so full of such sharp shifts.

Gukurahundi as property

A key handicapping taboo has been the whole issue of political disturbances which affected some parts of Matabeleland and Midlands in the early eighties, disturbances which dragged on until the 1987 Unity Accord which cured them.

I have tackled this subject before, challenging those who consider themselves owners of the whole discourse on the so-called Gukurahundi, to come forward and debate the matter openly, candidly, using national platforms. Let’s admit it, Gukurahundi has become an investment of unfailing dividend, or so some think. It is owned.

But they have all recoiled, slinking away in loud silence which is the exact opposite of golden. And when all is quiet, they rally back, steal forward all to pelt one or two officials they deem most guilty on the matter, most vulnerable at the time.

As has just been done by Dumiso Dabengwa, to the new Vice President Mphoko. As is beginning to happen to ED, the other new Vice President who is being challenged to explain his role in that sad chapter of our history.

The Zionist myth

I hate politics of blackmail. I hate everlasting myths, particularly when they become so self-serving politically.

And I use the word myth not as the opposite of the truthful, the factual, but as a peculiarly selective treatment of facts and occurrences, all to build a gagging and intimidating narrative that creates guilt, that cannot be tested or challenged, but which is used to condemn and reward, both gratuitously.

The Israelis have used the power of myth to remain an eternally wronged Nation, long after their persecutors have perished, long after they have themselves turned out to be a wronging Nation, a persecuting Nation. In fact, they use the Second World War holocaust to make themselves a nation, and to reinforce the ramparts of that Nation for all-time existence.

Theirs is a permanent injury that has become a nation-moulding project, which is why they relish forever victimhood.

Into digits of infinity

Sensing this, and correctly reading it to be a major stumbling block to the reassertion of Palestinian rights, a real block the Arab cause, the immediate-past president of Iran, Amadinejaad, set out to perforate this abiding Jewish myth.

The reaction was sharp and unprecedented: the Jews, led by their American lobby, would have none of it. Ahmadinejad had aimed the sharp end of a dagger at the pulsating heart of Zionism.

Attacking and challenging the myth of the holocaust is far more lethal to Israel than arming Hezbollah with a nuclear warhead! The holocaust is a forming myth, one which has to be renewed daily so the whole world continues to owe Israel a living, literally. So the whole world becomes an extended accessory to Nazi crimes.

That the same Israel has been detonating a bigger genocidal holocaust in Gaza, is beside the point, and should never diminish this primary, timeless injury that gets inflicted upon the whole world, including its non-Nazi parts, to create a self-renewing, timeless debt whose atoning repayment goes into digits of infinity.

And statecraft for Israeli politics means inventing new ways and wars for reinforcing this timeless victim-hood, which makes the Israeli nuclear bomb seem less threatening to world peace than Iran’s idea and aspiration to have one. It is crazy.

Reading sheer language incompetence

A few weeks back this country, Zimbabwe that is, was subjected to an irrational, time-wasting debate of unimaginable proportions. Some reckless corporate called Chicken Slice made some communication about its delicious drumsticks that sliced and deformed some Ndebele language construction.

Before then, some other company or Ministry Department had misspelt “Bulawayo”, again to a great sensitivity storm. Look, I don’t condone bad spelling or construction, in whatever language, by whomsoever. It miffs me when Herald writes: “It’s time Manheru stops complaining about us”, when it should be: “It’s time Manheru stopped complaining about us”.

Or worse when ZBC newscasters subject local names to English phonetic rules, while reading English words like the Queen’s language was forged in Zaka.

It’s plain poor communication, poor language command and speech discipline, fullstop! But to have to read or spell out a frightful world-view merely on the basis of such a stupid error is, in my humble view, to reveal a real crisis of self-belief on the part of the offended reader, not admirably language error analysis skills, as one would expect.

Why should getting the spelling or construction of Ndebele wrong suggest a dire portent beyond simple language incompetence? One punishable by spank in an old classroom, or by raucous laughter in a classroom or elders, which is what our Nation is or should be?

Those despicable half-castes

Look, stop lecturing me on language and group identity. I have read more sociolinguistics, done more semiotics, than anyone reacting to this piece from despicable tribal narrowness.

After all it is not the ordinary Ndebele speaker — that personification and repository of the real language — who is complaining.

It is this western-educated, elitist, so-fluent-in-English, so-halting-in-Ndebele, Harare-or-London-residing middling class, cultural half-caste, who frets so symbolically.

An acutely self-alienated, Zanu-PF-hating, western lover, who happens to have been born of black Zimbabwean parents, to have been born in Zimbabwe, against his or her will, that suddenly chafes about broken Ndebele. And does so in ways supportive of dire group weltanschauung conclusions which are calculated to create political opportunity.

How many times have you come across a Ndebele speaker who massacres a Shona dialect? And does so to enormous charm, chuckle and even incorporating sympathies from the “wronged” speech community?

The polyglot nation

I am Shona. My own “little” mother is Ndebele, daughter to the Bepes. My elder brother’s son, Tafadzwa, marries into the Mbonambi family, hailing from Umulomwe area of Bulilima District, itself the heartland of Kalangas. These ladies’ early days into our family were most humorous linguistically.

They did things with Shona, twisted and turned it heartily, until it obediently delivered their intended meaning to their interlocutors, altogether more than a legion in our prolific clan. It was real mirth and joy sharing a conversation with either, something family members would do more often than real communication transaction or need warranted.

Particularly, they faced an up-tongue task in pronouncing “tasvika”, which shot past their labio-dentals as “taswika”! We loved it! M.A.K. Halliday, that world-famed Australian semiotician, tells you people do things with language; they do not necessarily seek to uphold its rules: phonetic, lexical, or morphological. They don’t speak to fulfill its rules, but to get it to do things for them in a speech act.

Far, far gone are Chomskian days of language purism. More, more in are days of multiculturalism, and its tongue-cousin, multilingualism, where codes are switched, traded and often distorted residually, along the learning path, often to greater mutually affection of interacting speech communities.

So don’t raise those silly arguments about language and identity as if this is a one-way street. As if Zimbabwe is anything but a polyglot nation.

Lesson from the Kalangas

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t condone the massacring of any language. Or of Ndebele in particular. I enjoy good, creative language and language use.

Equally, I don’t deny that language is a social marker; that languages enjoy some hierarchy founded on a given society’s social structure. I reckon with all those points, which is why I pity Shona and Ndebele, while avenging their dual relegation at the hands of colonially imported English, by twisting the Queen’s tongue until yati baba!

Twisting it until it becomes ductile enough to carry my thoughts! Yes, languages do carry the identity of speakers. But that also includes aspiring speakers who are bound to use the target language with typical infractions we call errors.

Those errors do also underline the identity of the speaker, the same way fluency in the target language spell out who the speaker is. Errors, not mistakes, a key distinction in language learning studies. Above all, languages don’t grow from perfected use, don’t grow under fretful perfectionists, don’t grow from the protective disposition of a hyper-sensitive speech community. Languages grow from bold and creative infractions of their founding rules, all to forge and yield new rules that cause new directions. That is what diachronic language studies show: the gradual mutation or evolution of given languages and their structures over time, and as a consequence of social dynamics which include interacting with other languages, in living social environments.

This is how history has given us Kalanga, but without saddling us with a mournful, fretful Kalanga community given to using those willy-nilly changes to their language to cry wolf, wolf!

To suggest they are being marginalized or overrun. Is it not a tribute to their adaptability that the Kalangas have a language at all to this day, and what is more, that they have an ever-growing and powerfully expressive language in spite of the daunting fact that they have had to survive under the shadow of three enormous languages: Ndebele, Shona and English?

The Kalangas, those my in-laws? Who didn’t dance to “Banolila” in the early eighties? Who? Does a dying language representing a dying community control shuffling national feet so powerfully, so beautifully, so completely?

Universally righteous, universally guilty

I sound petty to devote so much space to two language incidents. Except they open a window into the mind of a negative politics we have nursed in the southern part of Zimbabwe. I hope you notice I don’t call it a Ndebele foible.

It is not. These politics belong to some wayward elites in our midst who aspire for political office, and who happen to have been born in some part in southern Zimbabwe. Most of them do not even remember the way to their birthplaces.

All of them know Harare better than they do Mangwe. But when ambition seizes them, they drape themselves in Ndebele garb. What rank hypocrisy! There is this brand of politics which peddle the myth of permanent injury to Ndebele-speaking Zimbabweans.

All you need is Ndebele language competence, plus some claim to some Nguni culture, to be deemed as having been injured in the mad 1980s. It does not matter where and when you were born whether or where you were at the time of conflict. All those affected are said to be your relatives, and must be. By dint of having that ascribed identity, you are deemed injured.

And you should feel injured by these “Shonas” who must all feel unconditionally guilty for perpetrating that sin, feel guilty by virtue of being Shonas! Goodness me, where are we going? Is that ever a framework for solving anything?

Why then make Mugabi win?

It has been such an intimidating and debilitating discourse that even well-meaning, broad-minded politicians from southern Zimbabwe pay homage to it, lest, as one of them said to me, they are finished! You have to rehearse arguments on Gukurahundi, pretend to hate “Mugabi”, if you ever hope to make it in Matabeleland politics, the character added.

Matabeleland politics? People have had to invent family tragedies, the same way that in Mashonaland, the MDC had to be related to all victims of Murambatsvina, in order to appropriate and mobilize around the common man’s injury.

This is baneful politics, despicable politics for a nation that pretends to be literate. Meanwhile the same “Matabeleland politics” rewarded “Mugabi” last year, while punishing Dabengwa and Welshman Ncube? Meanwhile the same Matabeleland politics saw the landless take over white farms the same way the Shonas did, in the process contributing towards a national land restitution movement.

Meanwhile the same Matabeleland politics went to war alongside Mashonaland, firstly in 1896 when inter-tribal conflicts were sharpest, freshest, and again in the mid and late sixties when Rhodesian oppression chafed deepest. So what justifies these politics whose parameters are based on primordial thinking?

Sinking deeper

Ironically, framing matters within the Gukurahundi myth does limit one’s politics and prospects. A politician who interprets politics that way discounts and disqualifies himself for national office automatically.

How do you hope to gain presidency, itself a national post, on the back of politics that privilege an ethnic group as against the rest? That make the rest guilty and owing? Those politics invariably trigger a defensive reflex which makes you a tribal prisoner, one sinking deeper and deeper into the cesspool of parochial politics.

Has the gene pool of real politicians shrunk, to leave us at the mercy of insecure, narrow elites seeking redemption and synthetic careers in past wrongs and narrowness, as opposed to organic politics? To the point of protecting a discussion on those wrongs, in order that this nation can outgrow them?

To the point of routinely going back to them so as to hide inability to tackle contemporary issues at the heart of the national voter, only one casting into the national ballot box from the southern part? Who profits from this opportunity shelved debate on Gukurahundi?

Or its occasional dusting and lifting off this strange shelf?

The failed water project

And this is where I find Dabengwa despicable. All those years in struggle, all that exposure, yet he remains a rallying point for narrow “nationalism”?

How sad! He simply fluffed his chances at landing the country’s vice presidency that seemed inevitable, by moving out of Zanu-PF for his Zapu.

Today he seeks to spoil chances for others who have stayed loyal to the cause, who have not opposed objectives of the struggle, principally the search for national unity. That’s not leadership.

He placed himself at the helm of the Zambezi water project, even created relationships with powerful corporates from Malaysia. Today, after so many years in Government, Matabeleland is still dry.

Could that explain why the demon of tribe is needed by these failed politicians?

A red herring? I think there is a way in which the water woes of southern Zimbabwe, the typical unemployment levels of southern Zimbabwe, the typically dying industries of southern Zimbabwe, can be articulated and projected as problems requiring the attention of the nation without seeking to reissue or win an old argument, without sinking into the pit of tribal politics. Or mobilising communities against the national project they need as a natural, collective defence in this rapacious, globalised world.

And to urge politicians from southern Zimbabwe to drop myth-making and start pushing for agendas within the national scope is not to de-legitimise anyone, or any part of the country.

Icho!

  • nathaniel.manheru@zimpapers.co.zw