Dangers of myths to tribal relations in Zimbabwe

OPINION – A number of myths and distortions of history have combined to fuel tensions, conflicts and violence in Zimbabwe. There are indeed a series of myths and distortions that have filtered into the Zimbabwe national question.\r\n

Let me list some of the myths and distortions of history that have negatively affected the nation-building project:

  • The first is that the Shona originated in Zimbabwe and are therefore the only authentic natives and owners of the country.
  • The second is that of the Ndebele as a unique human species, blood thirty destroyers of human life and violent invaders and foreigners to Zimbabwe who survived by plundering other communities including enslaving the Shona-speaking peoples.
  • The third is that the Shona were and are a unique human species, weak people, peace-lovers, who never engaged in raiding and conquest, who were mere victims of aggressive Mfecane refugees from the South such as the Ngoni, Gaza, Swazi and Ndebele.
  • The fourth myth is that what today exists as Zimbabwe is constituted by two hostile and contending ethnic groups of the Ndebele and Shona.
  • The fifth is that ZAPU was reluctant to confront the Rhodesian colonial state violently and that this reluctance led to the split of 1963 that gave birth to ZANU.
  • The sixth is that ZANU and ZANLA are the only authentic revolutionary-liberation force that fought for the liberation of the country from colonial rule.
  • The seventh is that in the 1980s there were politically-motivated, organised and armed Ndebele-speaking dissidents that were sponsored by PF-ZAPU and supported by the people of Matabeleland and the Midlands regions who sought to dethrone the legitimately elected Zanu PF government.
  • The final myth is that in the 1980s there was a Shona army that had the blessings of the entire Shona-speaking community that was launched into Matabeleland and Midlands regions to eliminate every Ndebele-speaking person.

I know that here I am touching some raw nerves but these myths and distortions of political history of the peoples today inhabiting the lands lying between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers have caused so much tensions, conflicts and violence.

I will try to unpack each of the myths and distortions with a view that perhaps if we debunk some of these, we might be able to reduce tensions, conflicts and violence that have visited us as a people across the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial epochs.

The Cameroonian historian and philosopher, Achille Mbembe, wrote about what he termed the “power of the false” in 2002.  Zimbabwe suffers greatly from this disease of the “power of the false”. Some of the falsities, fallacies, myths and distortions have permeated our oral cultures, novels and history books. Some of our folk tales talk of “madzviti” who were fearsome and lived like vampires through attacking, raiding and capturing women, cattle and children and taking them away routinely.

Let me try and unpack each of the myths and distortions. The Shona are part of Bantu group just like the Nguni. Their origins do not lie in Zimbabwe but in the Benue Cross Region. This is confirmed by linguistic and archeological evidence. That they migrated first into the Zimbabwe plateau does not make them more indigenous than other African peoples inhabiting the lands lying between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers.

Pre-colonial African history, like all other ancient histories, is a tale of migrations, conquest and settlement. The original inhabitants of Southern Africa are the San and the Khoi Khoi. Get me correct here. I do not doubt that Africa belongs to Africans. What I am worried about is the attempt by some Africans to indigenise themselves while occidentalising others.

The Rwandan genocide was caused precisely by this powerful but dangerous politicisation of myths of origins, together with the role of German and Belgian colonialism that survived through dividing and ruling the Tutsi, Hutu and Twa.

Perhaps what has not been thoroughly debated in pre-colonial African history are the grades of nativity and indigineity—how long does one have to live in a particular place to be accepted as a native and indigenous person?

Liberals have a clear rule of graduation of foreigners into natives: after five years a foreigner can apply for permanent residence and after ten years, a permanent resident can apply for full citizenship. This is problematic, but there is a clear trajectory to be followed.

What is beyond doubt is that the groups that today call themselves Shona came to the Zimbabwe plateau ahead of the Ndebele by centuries. But archaeological evidence that includes research done at Mapungubwe heritage site indicates a Shona movement from the South into Zimbabwe.

Now on the Ndebele, are they a unique human species? The Ndebele belong to the Bantu group just like the Shona and others. Their history is traced to the coastal areas lying between the Indian Ocean and the Drakensburg Mountains in South Africa. They were originally part of the Nguni groups comprising the Zulu, Xhosa, Swati, Gaza and others.

Prior to the Mfecane (that revolution that took place among the Nguni and Sotho-Tswana groups involving increased warfare, state formation and forced migrations), the Nguni ancestors of Ndebele existed as decentralised clans near Ngome Forests dominated by the Khumalo who eventually emerged as the royalty.

In the first place, the Khumalo clans were conquered by Zwide Nxumalo of the Ndwandwe conferederacy, but by 1818, Mzilikazi Khumalo, the son of Mashobana whose mother, Nompethu Nxumalo, was a daughter of Zwide, broke away from his maternal uncle during the battle of Mhlathuze and joined the Zulu nation led by Shaka. Within two years, Mzilikazi could no longer entertain Shaka’s authoritarianism and he broke away from the Zulu nation in 1820 and migrated across the Drakensburg Mountains into the Sotho-Tswana dominated communities.

It was a norm by then to raid, conquer and incorporate defeated groups into one’s emerging state and nation.  The Ndebele were not an exception. After breaking away from Shaka, the followers of Mzilikazi gained a new name Matebele from the Sotho of King Moshweshwe, which eventually became Ndebele. Matebele was a Sotho name for strangers from the coastal areas who encroached on their territory. Prior, to the adoption of the name Ndebele, the followers of Mzilikazi were known as Zulus and they spoke IsiZulu.

Mzilikazi and his people had no intentions to migrate to the Zimbabwe plateau. It’s a myth that Shaka pushed the Ndebele into Zimbabwe. Shaka died in 1828. The Ndebele migrated into Zimbabwe in 1837-8. This was ten years after Shaka’s death. They were pushed out by the Afrikaners who had migrated from Cape Colony in 1834-5 in what is known as the Great Trek. The Afrikaners in alliance with the Griqua and Korana, managed to push Mzilikazi and his people from Marico and Caledon Valleys in Transvaal because they were armed with modern firearms.

It is important to note that before migrating across the Limpopo River, a Ndebele nation was already born comprising of Nguni, Sotho and Tswana elements. What actually migrated was a full-fledged “migrant kingdom” comprising of livestock, women, girls, boys, children and men. What is also important to note is that during the pre-colonial era, warfare was not conducted to annihilate communities. Human beings, just like cattle, were a form of wealth. They had to be accumulated rather than destroyed.

The first group of the Ndebele arrived in present day Mzingwane area in 1838. They found the Rozvi kingdom already very weak and in a state of disintegration due to internal power struggle as well as attacks by the Ngoni of Zwangendaba, Nxaba and the Swati of Queen Nyamazana. In fact, that last Mambo known as Chirisamhuru was killed by the Swati of Queen Nyamazana. This means that the Ndebele easily assimilated some of the Rozvi into their ranks and pushed those who were resisting out. The case in point being that of Muntinhma, who chose to resist and migrate.

The bulk of Moyos of Matebeleland came from the great Rozvi state and many of them are today proudly Ndebele. In Ndebele memory, Mambo of the Rozvi and Mzilikazi Khumalo of the Ndebele are proudly remembered together as great founders of the Ndebele nation. Those from Matabeleland and the Midlands regions would remember the Ndebele traditional song which goes like this: “Kudala kakunganje; kwakubusa uMambo lo Mzilikazi (In the past it was not like today, kings were Mambo and Mzilikazi).”

Thus to the Nguni-Sotho-Tswana social layers was added another one of amaHole comprising of various people found in the south-western part of the Zimbabwe plateau. AmaHole were not of Shona origin only. Some were of Venda, Tonga, Shangwe, Nambya, Kalanga and Birwa extraction. The other collective name of AmaHole was AbeTshabi. By the time the Ndebele state was destroyed by the colonialists in 1893 and 1896, those people originating from the Zimbabwe plateau comprised about 60% of the Ndebele population and those of Nguni-Sotho-Tswana origin constituted about 40%.

What must be dispelled is that amaHole were enslaved people. How can 60% of the national population of the Ndebele society be enslaved by 40% of the population? AmaHole were full Ndebele citizens. Their children were drafted into amabutho (age-set groups) just like every other youth. Let me also explain that the Ndebele nation was socially organised according to where people originally came from: AbeZansi meant those from the South, AbeNnhla meant those from the North and amaHole those found on the Zimbabwe plateau.

Of course, the Ndebele just like all other pre-colonial people practiced raiding as a security and defence measure to keep threatening neighbours in perpetual state of weakness. Neighbours of the Ndebele such as the various Shona groups, the Ngwato, the Gaza, and Kololo as well as the Afrikaners were raiders too and could not be taken for granted. They needed to be kept in check as they posed a danger. Raiding was a political ploy rather than a branch of Ndebele economy.

The Ndebele were competent agriculturalists and pastoralists. When they entered the Zimbabwe plateau, they had numerous cattle including Afrikanders (amabula) they took from the Afrikaners at the battles of Vegkop of 1836 where they managed to force the Afrikaners to hide inside a laager, leaving their cattle outside. The Ndebele collected over 6,000 cattle, goats and sheep from the Afrikaners. The cattle that were raided from Mashonaland were what became known as iminjanja (today known as hard-Mashona type) from Njanja area.

This takes me to the question of whether the Shona were a unique human species that was weak and always victim to the Ndebele raids. In the first place, it must be remembered that state formation among the Shona just like among other African groups took the form of raiding and conquest of weaker groups as well as assimilation and incorporation into new state. No wonder that Mutapa meant pillager and Rozvi meant destroyers.

General Tumbare of the Rozvi was a great fighter and raider. A group known as the Dumbuseya was a renowned Shona raiding community.  In short, the various Shona groups raided each other as well as the Ndebele. What sparked the Anglo-Ndebele war in October 1893? It was a Shona raid on the Ndebele conducted by Gomani and Bere’s people.  When the Ndebele forces conducted a punitive counter-raid, the white settlers resident in Fort Victoria intervened on the side of the two Shona chiefs and used the incident (Victoria incident) as a pretext to destroy the Ndebele state.

It is also not true that the Ndebele attacked the Shona groups indiscriminately. The case in point is that of the Chivi people who remained neighbours of the Ndebele throughout the existence of the Ndebele state, sometimes paying tribute and at time resisting Ndebele raids successfully.

What also needs to be opened to debate is the notion of amadzviti as reference to the Ndebele. The term amadzviti meant violent strangers. There were many madzvitis who were not Ndebele. The Gaza from the Eastern border was a strong raiding group. The Ngoni of Zwangendaba passed through the Zimbabwe plateau prior to the arrival of the Ndebele and they attacked the Shona before migrating to Zambia and Malawi. Queen Nyamazana of the Swazi also entered the Zimbabwe plateau and attacked the Shona. The Ndebele are remembered only because they were the last group to come into the Zimbabwe plateau in the late 1830s.

The other myth that needs debunking is that of Zimbabwe as comprising of two antagonistic Shona and Ndebele ethnic groups. Eighteen languages are spoken in Zimbabwe including Shona and Ndebele. Zimbabwe is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual society. The language ecology of the country consist of chiManyika, chiZezeru, chiKaranga, chiKorekore, chiNdau, isiTshangane, isiNdebele, isiKalanga, isiTonga, isiVenda, isiSuthu, isiDombe, isiXhosa, isiTonga seMudzi, isiTshwawo, isiTswana, chiBarwe, isiSena, isiDoma, Chikunda, isiNambiya and isiChewa. These languages have their proud speakers and they must be recognised rather than compartmentalised into hegemonic Shona and Ndebele languages.

The history of liberation of Zimbabwe is also spoiled by deliberately constructed myths and distortions. By the time ZANU broke away from ZAPU in 1963, ZAPU was actively engaged in preparing for armed struggle. As early as 1961, cadres were already sent for training in Ghana. By 1962, Joshua Nkomo had sourced firearms from Egypt to launch the armed struggle. What is clear is that ZAPU and ZANU were consistently competing for opinion, ideological space, minds, hearts, and recognition just like Zanu PF and MDC political formations today competing for friends in the region, continent and across the international community as well as for local support.

It must be noted that throughout the liberation struggle, ZANU struggled to penetrate a world that was used to ZAPU just like the MDC formations trying to penetrate the SADC region and continent used to Zanu PF. ZANU made a break-through in Ghana because President Mugabe had worked there as a teacher, Tanzania because the late veteran nationalist Herbert Chitepo had worked there as a public prosecutor, China because of the Sino-Soviet squabbles and Mozambique because ZAP,  by the early 1970s, was hit by a second split and could not take up the training bases offered to it by its ally FRELIMO.

But ZAPU and ZIPRA remained committed to the liberation of Zimbabwe just like ZANU and ZANLA. Yet history has this tendency of being written from the perspective of victors in any struggle and Zimbabwean nationalist history is not an exception. Once ZANU and ZANLA triumphed in the 1980 elections, they immediately appropriated nationalist history including raiding and taking ZAPU and ZIPRA archives to make sure their contribution to the liberation of this country is down-played and in order to sustain the myth of PF-ZAPU and ZIPRA as a danger to the postcolonial nation and state.

My last comment is on Gukurahundi (Fifth Brigade) and dissidents. Is it correct to depict the Fifth Brigade as a Shona army? Is it correct to depict dissidents as a Ndebele army? The Fifth Brigade was comprised of ideologically whitewashed Shona-speaking men. There was no pretence that it was a political party army that was used to politically and physically eliminate PF-ZAPU and ZIPRA. It targeted Ndebele-speaking people on the basis of a myth that PF-ZAPU was a Ndebele party and ZIPRA was comprised by Ndebele-speaking men and women.

But is it true that PF-ZAPU was a Ndebele party and that ZIPRA comprised of Ndebele men and women only? Was this not a myth created by Zanu PF to provincialise and tribalise PF-ZAPU and ZIPRA and in the process down-play its instrumental role in the liberation struggle?  In this context, is it not possible that dissidents were manufactured by Zanu PF to justify its crackdown on PF-ZAPU and ZIPRA? More research is needed into this issue.

Have we not seen similar accusations against the MDC-T that it was training armed groups in Botswana as an attempt to justify a crackdown? Were stories of armed caches found in the eastern part of the country not concocted in an attempt to implicate MDC formations just like what happened in 1982 to implicate PF-ZAPU in dissident activities?

In the Ndebele language, they say zinqunywamakhanda ziyekwe (you cut the head of the ants and leave them like that)! But for the sake of progress on nation rebuilding, myths and distortions that cause tensions, conflicts and violence need to be confronted head-on without fear or favour if Zimbabwe is to survive. The Zimbabwe national question is clouded by too many myths and historical distortions that need sober analysis and debunking.

Finally, let me say that a country like Zimbabwe with its complicated history needs a very astute leadership well versed on the country’s political history and social complexion. It needs a leadership that is able to synthesize various histories into new accommodative and generous one rather than those who actively take part in further dividing people on ethnic and partisan lines into patriots, puppets, war veterans, and born-frees.

Let us avoid use of obscene language and name-calling and engage these issues. A culture of civil debates is very healthy for nation-building and democracy. I leave the ball in your court!

Professor Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni teaches development studies at UNISA. He is writing in his personal capacity. He can be contacted at sjndlovugatsheni@gmail.com