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Tribalism is real in Zimbabwe

“Tribalism” is a taboo word, but it’s hard to think of a better one to describe what motivates the Zimbabwean government’s treatment of the Ndebeles. The dirt-under-the-rug attitude cannot continue indefinitely. This is how a people get erased from a culture.



For the past three decades, Zimbabweans have struggled with undertones of tribalism in their lives; a stench still reeking today and whispered in conversation because of its implications if spoken openly, yet a threatening gesture in the hands of government.

Today, tribalism still makes the rounds in a new and subtle kind of genocide, one characterised by marginalisation, hate speech, neglect in terms of economic and infrastructural development and a host of other governmental practices. It is branded into the minds of people through our education, media, businesses, cultures and many other subtle acts that do not only derive from or perpetuate stereotypes and prejudice but also contribute to the elimination of tribes from the nation.

With the ruling party marred by recent infighting and not-so-secret secrets like divisions and loose-canonry in the case of the first lady, and the ‘would-like-to-be successors’ (the Mnangagwas) and the unwanted successors (The Mujurus) in ‘the sexism of the succession wars,’ the president is quoted as having said: “we are experiencing it for the first time in ZANU PF and for that matter, it’s a woman who is saying I also want to govern.” Terms like “Garmatox” seem to still have a place in the ideology of our so-called revolutionary party. Terms that should be part of the nation’s do-away-with list in a long overdue ‘Healing Process’ are being used as threats to rival factions within the party and to minority tribes.

Many people will not know that this term derives from the 80s during the “Moment of Madness” that the president termed Gukurahundi to have been. What happened was the target and massacre of over 20,000 of the Ndebele population in mafia style public executions of civilians, cartel style torture of innocent people and rebel style gang rapes of women and young girls while their husbands and/or fathers watched in instances. And in the heat of all this going on a senior party member is known to have uttered the statement ‘…we will use #Garmatox to eliminate cockroaches in Matabeleland…’ (Paraphrased). This supposedly being an execution style borrowed from Hitler’s gassing of Jews during the Holocaust.

© Owen Maseko. One of the paintings addressing the tribal issue, which formed part of the exhibition for which Owen Maseko was arrested. Fours years later, the gallery in which the exhibition was held remains closed.

© Owen Maseko. One of the paintings addressing the tribal issue, which formed part of the exhibition for which Owen Maseko was arrested. Fours years later, the gallery in which the exhibition was held remains closed.

What could have transpired to warrant this hatred considering all these different tribes fought side by side in an effort to earn their freedom from imperialist oppression? What prompted the need for this ‘tribal cleansing’? To warrant the calling of a “Pest Control” (5th Brigade) upon a people? Forcing people into criminal activities against their own tribesmen? I remember in my youth hearing the story of the man who was forced to eat an entire garden of red chillies as a form of torture in the township of Entumbane. Such an act by government on the very people that cast ballots to place them in office.

Our country has a knack of avoiding that which matters the most and as such, a Healing Ritual hasn’t been included in the national agenda at all. The hatred is more subtle these days but still as effective. Fellow artist and comrade Owen Maseko was arrested the day after the opening of his exhibition ‘Sibathontisele’ addressing the tribalism and disturbances that had occurred in the 80s in Matabeleland. He was accused of being tribalist by addressing an act of tribalism against his people. The media has played its hand in this game of cards with traditional Ndebele Music (Imbube), very popular on radio in the 80s and 90s, being taken off air with the introduction of “100% local content”; a paradox of sorts. Today our schools continue to teach about ‘Chimurenga’. Not many people know our revolutionary struggle’s name by any other local language. Even the army battalions jogging through town in Bulawayo or Matabeleland do not sing any Ndebele revolutionary songs. It’s like they do not exist.

"They Made Us Sing" © Owen Maseko. Part of the visual art exhibition in Bulawayo for which the artist was arrested

“They Made Us Sing” © Owen Maseko. Part of the visual art exhibition in Bulawayo for which the artist was arrested

In this day and age, we have a Registrar General who misspells Ndebele (or non-Shona and English) names on peoples passports. Even Coca Cola was recently found guilty of this cultural insensitivity of spelling Ndebele names incorrectly, and people threatened to boycott the world’s most popular health hazard. Sorry, I mean drink; like Coke would truly care. NGOs erecting billboards with confusing supposedly Ndebele statements. Even the restaurants in Bulawayo and/or Matabeleland write ‘Sadza’ on their menus and not the Ndebele ‘Isitshwala’. When confronted, some claim that Shona people are the ones that buy from their shops, or simply “…that’s the language of business…”, perpetuating the stereotype that Ndebeles generally do not have money or possess the skills to acquire it.

The Manicaland province has been vocal about devolution for many years now, but as soon as people in Matabeleland raise the issue, they are singled out and made to look like troublemakers attempting to divide the country.

This subtle exclusion, marginalisation and oppression draws a thick dividing line between ordinary people. Many people of Shona descent become uncomfortable when conversation touches on these issues, not necessarily because they agree with what’s going on but more likely because all of this is a consequence of the government’s dirt-under-the-rug attitude, and the people’s anger, like shit-hitting-the-fan, doesn’t care who it ricochets onto. So in many instances it is unclear whether this anger is directed at the government or Shona people in general.

Our constitution acknowledges 16 languages and, thus, cultures in Zimbabwe. Of those sixteen only two are taught in schools: Shona and Ndebele. Of these two, one is dying at both the hands of the perpetrators of this dying and at the hands of the victims, the Ndebeles. The Ndebeles have become very passive about what becomes of their culture. Through the years of this physical and psychological oppression, we have diluted our culture with cultures from neighbouring South Africa. Many young men now play at being Zulu, Xhosa or Sotho instead of the Ndebeles that we are, descendants of Mzilikazi. This denial of self contributes to a ‘Self Tribalism’ that gnaws at our existence.

History shows that besides the Bathwa and the Kalanga, every other tribe came from somewhere outside of the area between the Zambezi and The Limpopo Rivers, yet today the former of these two tribes does not exist in Zimbabwe and the latter has been reduced to a minority only recognised by language yet not represented in the spheres influence or the direction and progress of our nation.