Changing Politics of Matabeleland

OPINION – I think the best way to understand the present day manifestations and character of Matebeleland politics is to situate them properly historically and politically within the broader terrain of the development of the idea of Zimbabwe and the eventual configuration of the Zimbabwe nation-state.\r\n

The changing nature of politics in Matabeleland is largely a response to realities and perceptions of exclusion, marginalisation and confinement to second class citizenship of Ndebele-speaking people that began in 1980. The politics that is emerging from Matebeleland region is that of protest to perceptions and realities of exclusion, marginalisation and domination. The launch of such radical formations as the Matebeleland Liberation Front (MLF) last year calling for complete secession of Matebeleland and Midlands regions from Zimbabwe is the climax of regional politics of frustration and resentment of domination.

President Robert Mugabe’s recent response to the developments taking place in the MDC led by Welshman Ncube and his seemingly overt support for Arthur Mutambara to remain as Deputy Prime Minister and refusal to swear-in Welshman Ncube as the new Deputy Prime Minister is fuelling perceptions of Ndebele-speaking leaders being unwanted and excluded from the corridors of power.

The idea of Zimbabwe is traceable to the 1960s. It emerged as a nationalist idea and an imagination of the postcolonial nation-state. The idea emerged within a terrain saturated with various ethno-cultural societies such as the Matebele Home Society, Monomotapa Offspring Society, Kalanga Cultural Society and many others-socio-cultural societies that indicated where the people were coming from and how they were responding to colonial environment and how they defined themselves identity-wise.

The naming of associations indicated a formative consciousness that was torn-apart between pre-colonial nostalgia and colonial realities. Zimbabwean nationalism had to spring from this milieu.The name of the imagined nation had to be indigenous. The Great Zimbabwe heritage site that is closely associated with the Karanga people (a branch of Shona as an enlarged identity) provided the name. Michael Mawema, a Karanga is credited for coming up with the name during his short stint as the interim president of the National Democratic Party (NDP).
 
But the first political formation to officially use the name Zimbabwe was the Zimbabwe National Party (ZNP) an insignificant party that was formed by some Karanga-speaking politicians that had broken up from NDP. From this outset, a voice from Matabeleland coming through some members of Matebele Home Society protested against the choice of the name Zimbabwe for the imagined nation.

They reasoned that it was an ethnic name that was not accommodative of other peoples. They preferred the name Matopos as inclusive and non-ethnic. Ethnicity was beginning to be a factor in the imagination of the postcolonial nation-state itself.African nationalism as the medium of implementation of the idea of Zimbabwe became deeply interpellated by ethnicity from its birth despite some pretensions of unity by the early nationalists. At the centre of articulation of nationalism were such considerations as what the foundation myth of the imagined nation-state was, and which heroes, symbols and history had to be projected as an anchorage of the imagined nation.

Beginning with the naming, Shona histories, symbols and heroes were increasingly elevated into anchorages of the imagined nation. This has partly to do with the fact that a majority of postcolonial nation-states had to be built and crystallise around the dominant ethnie.

But nationalists had the mammoth task of creatively managing and balancing such vectors of identity as race, class, ethnicity, region, gender, and generation as they imagined a unitary postcolonial nation-state. The difficult question is: Were there real nationalists existing as de-tribalised actors committed to the imagining and building a stable nation?

Was the label nationalist not only a respected one that masked tribalism? Did we not have lip-service nationalists who only assumed nationalist identities in front of crowds and then withdrew to their primal tribal identity soon after? These are important questions that beg for responses.

The 1963 split in the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) that gave birth to a Shona dominated Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) remains one important event that indicated how tribalism and ethnicity were deeply embedded within nationalism.

 However hard those who were involved in this split deny the prominence of tribalism and ethnicity as a factor behind the split the subsequent events spoke loudly about the role of ethnicity in spoiling the birth of a nation. The immediate post-split ZAPU-ZANU faction fights in Harare, Gweru, Bulawayo and other sites took clear tribal and ethnic dimensions. Later splits including the one that resulted in the formation of the Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe (Frolizi) and others also indicated how ethnicity was playing havoc within nationalist politics. The same is true of postcolonial split that rocked the MDC in 2005.

Even factions within ZANU-PF indicate the reverberation of regional, kinship, clannish, ethnic and tribal alignments.

In short, the liberation struggle became a terrain of re-tribalisation of nationalism with particular ethnic groups positioning themselves to lead and dominate the imagined postcolonial nation. Even a seemingly unitary Shona identity unravelled as the Karanga fought to eliminate the Manyika and the Zezuru fought for ascendance over the Karanga.

Along the way lives were lost due to what Masipula Sithole termed ‘struggles within the struggle.’The sum of all is that the Zimbabwe nation-state that was born in 1980 was a product of a deeply tribalised nationalism. The nationalists who spearheaded the liberation struggle dreamt in both nationalist and tribal languages and terms.

 The nation-state was therefore born with a terrible ethnic-tribal birth-mark. As put by Eldred Masunungure, Zimbabwe as a state came into being in 1980 but Zimbabwe as a nation did not. There was outright and unapologetic building of the state as a ‘Zanufied’ and ‘Shonalized’ political formation where other political actors like PF-ZAPU that drew most of its support from Matabeleland and Midlands regions had no dignified space and Ndebele-speaking people were an inconvenience that had to be dealt with. This mentality was clear from music, symbols, heroes and national celebrations of independence.

As noted above Zimbabwe was born out of an armed liberation war spearheaded by ethnically fragmented leadership, fought by equally ethnically fragmented freedom fighters and supported by masses that were socialised into tribal politics. It was against this background that ZANU-PF electoral victory in 1980 was celebrated as not only a victory of a liberation movement over settler colonialism but also as victory of Shona political elite over Ndebele political elites in PF-ZAPU. While ZANU-PF built their political legitimacy on their nationalist liberation war credentials, they also openly connected the party, the state, and the nation to Shona historical symbols.

This set the stage for an ethnic showdown between the triumphant Shona and the defeated Ndebele that became openly violent in 1982. On this issue, Norma Kriger noted that from the very day of achievement of independence, the triumphant Shona-dominated ZANU-PF leadership displayed a unique desire to build a ‘party-nation’ and a ‘party-state’ that excluded other political formations, crafted around and backed by ZANU-PF’s war-time military wing (ZANLA) and Shona historical experiences.
 
Specific party slogans, party symbols, party songs, and party regalia of the liberation war time continued to be used at national ceremonies like Independence and Heroes Days. It was amidst this fanfare and celebratory mood that Shona triumphalism unfolded against Ndebele particularism reeling under a feeling of defeat.

Through music and dance, the triumphalism of ZANU-PF over PF-ZAPU was openly displayed and conveyed to everybody as though the liberation struggle was a duality between the Shona dominated ZANU-PF and the Ndebele dominated PF-ZAPU. A decidedly partial history of the liberation war and a decidedly partial imagination of the state and the nation ensued backed by an openly biased historical master-narrative of the struggle for independence.

 The typical example of that history was David Martin and Phyllis Johnson’s The Struggle for Zimbabwe: Chimurenga War freely distributed throughout the country into every school and college. This book became the official history of ZANU-PF and ZANLA, celebrating their centrality in the struggle while at the same time sidelining the contribution of PF-ZAPU and ZIPRA.

The triumphant ZANU-PF politicians immediately used the state controlled media to cast PF-ZAPU, its leader Joshua Nkomo, and its military wing (ZIPRA), as no heroic liberators, as no committed nation-builders, but as a threat to the country’s hard won independence. Historians like T. Ranger, N. Bhebe, and E. Sibanda have tried to add the Matabeleland narratives into the story of nationalism through Matabeleland focused research in recent years. This academic compensation has not been accompanied by a clear drive for political and economic inclusion of Ndebele people into the mainstream of post-colonial Zimbabwe save for the Unity Accord of 22 December 1987.

Up to now Shona history, Shona symbols, and rituals still underpin state ideology at the exclusion of the Ndebele. Even such minor issues such as which news bulletin comes first on ZTV is permeated and driven by imperatives of Shona-Ndebele power imbalances.

News in the Shona language must always come first. But in democratic countries like South Africa where there are eleven recognised official languages there is no rigid format of which news in which language comes first.

The writer Sabelo Gatsheni Ndlovu is associate professor of development studies at Wits University in Johannesburg.It will be continued next week.