BARACK Obama’s historic election as the first black US president has captured the world’s imagination and projected America as a beacon of democracy where the idealism of its founders remains alive.
Trumping centuries of prejudice and racial cleavages, Obama’s seminal achievement redrew America’s political map and confounded generations of hitherto sure-proof political wisdom. But could such a feat be replicated in Zimbabwe’s own politics? How feasible is the prospect of a Ndebele president, Nambya, Tonga, Venda, or mixed race, disparagingly still officially referred to as ‘Coloured’ almost 30 years since the end of white colonial rule?
New Zimbabwe.com today boldly opens a debate that has so often tended to incite rather than provide insight, and invites readers to dispassionately and critically interrogate this most emotive of subjects that lies at the very core of the soul of our young nation. To set the ball rolling, New Zimbabwe.com editor MDUDUZI MATHUTHU provides a historical context of the framing of ethnicity in Zimbabwean politics.
IN THEIR hugely revelatory book, MUGABE, David Smith and Colin Simpson (1981) record how Lord Soames – the British-appointed transitional governor of Rhodesia – summoned Robert Mugabe in 1980 to raise concerns about “intimidation by his supporters in certain areas, notably in Manicaland…”
This was in the run-up to Zimbabwe’s first elections in 1980 which pitted Mugabe against his main opponents — Joshua Nkomo (PF-ZAPU) and Bishop Abel Muzorewa (UANC).
The charge sheet against Mugabe was an impressive one. One incident, recorded in then Fort Victoria (now Masvingo), particularly strikes me. Smith and Simpson write on page 181:
“It was from Victoria Province that the worst evidence had come – and more damagingly for Mugabe, it had come from his old ally Joshua Nkomo. Nkomo told the governor that three of his workers, a candidate called Francis Makombe and two helpers, were putting up posters in Chibi tribal trust land near Fort Victoria when they were abducted by two gunmen who identified themselves as ZANLA ‘fighters’.
“The three of them were marched off to nearby villages, the peasants assembled and ordered to ignore Nkomo’s party. The gunmen, Nkomo said, then told the crowd that Mugabe’s party had equipment to detect how people voted. Anyone who voted for any candidate other than Mugabe’s would have their heads cut off.
“The two helpers were beaten, the candidate was last seen with burning coal being stuffed down his throat.”
On page 187, Smith and Simpson – both former Africa correspondents for UK media organisations – reveal how Soames confronted Mugabe over the violence. Nkomo said he could simply not campaign in many parts of Mashonaland for fear of reprisals, Lord Soames declared.
Mugabe seized on this at once, Smith and Simpson write.
“Look Lord Soames,” Mugabe said. “I’m not new to this game, you know. That’s my part of the country, Manicaland, that’s mine. The fact that Nkomo can’t campaign there is down to the fact that I control it, I’ve had a cell there for five years. Is it surprising that people don’t turn out there for Nkomo? Would I go to Nkomo country (Matabeleland) and expect to raise a crowd there? Of course I wouldn’t.”
I was reminded of Mugabe’s reference to “Nkomo country” while listening to Barack Obama’s victory speech after becoming the first black President of the United States on November 4.
Obama said by voting him into power, and so overwhelmingly, Americans had “sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States (traditional Republican Party-leaning States) and Blue States (traditional Democratic Party-leaning States): we are, and always will be, the United States of America.”
Whatever Mugabe meant, it is clear in his mind he had a picture of a political landscape defined by tribe. The logic of his argument to Lord Soames, which justified the use of violence against Nkomo’s supporters, was that a Ndebele leader’s political ambitions should be contained within the boundaries of Matabeleland, and by the same token a Shona leader should only seriously mobilise in Mashonaland.
Tragically, Mugabe’s segmentation of Zimbabwe into “Nkomo country” and “Mugabe country” still holds, and will remain political currency for a while. For that reason, the miracle of the American election – translated in Zimbabwe to mean the election of a President from a minority tribe – is as distant as the last page of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
In the 1980 elections, Mugabe inevitably swept the Mashonaland vote and Nkomo did likewise in Matabeleland. The order was repeated in the 1985 elections – held under extreme violence in Matabeleland as Mugabe sent troops into “Nkomo country” in a bid to crush the ZAPU leader’s backbone.
Mugabe, having himself partitioned the country between himself and Nkomo in 1980, finally got to exercise full control of the land when he, using violence, forced Nkomo to abolish ZAPU and join a unity government in 1987, as his deputy. For the first time, Zanu PF would carry the “Nkomo country” vote, which came to pass in the 1990 and 1996 landslide victories.
When Nkomo died in 1999, his supporters were in an invidious position. He had reluctantly taken them into the bowels of Zanu PF, and now they had no political home. There was no Nkomo, and there was no serious “Nkomo country” political organisation to embrace their vote.
This ‘decision time’ would coincide with the formation of the MDC, which itself had assembled an impressive group of “tribal” representatives from the region. It genuinely looked a movement equipped to crash through Mugabe’s tribal barriers.
In the 2000 parliamentary elections, the former “Nkomo country” would swing en masse behind the MDC – claiming 21 of the 23 seats in Bulawayo, Matabeleland North and Matabeleland South.
The novelty of the MDC was its integration of respected leaders from Matabeleland, who were infused with other leading figures from Mashonaland, to form what genuinely looked a national party representative of the young and old, rich and poor, Shona and Ndebele, black, white, Asian, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – to paraphrase Obama.
A question arises. Would an MDC led by Gibson Sibanda – who, by virtue of being president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), was senior to Morgan Tsvangirai (secretary general) — have been a threat to Zanu PF in “Mugabe country”? Unlikely!
Some will say “common sense” – read tribal reality — prevailed, and Tsvangirai became MDC President with Sibanda taking a junior role. That way, the MDC could go on the offence in “Mugabe country” while also courting support in “Nkomo country” where the Ndebele minority was amiable, for lack of options, to political accommodation so beautifully represented by Nkomo’s capitulation in playing Mugabe’s surrogate – even if to save his people from killings and curfews.
It should also be remembered, as Smith and Simpson point out, that Mugabe pulled out of the Patriotic Front – backed by Zanu’s central committee – which should have contested the 1980 elections, partly because he knew he would partition the country on tribal grounds, and secure his majority anyway.
Smith and Simpson record, on page 158, how at one session in late 1979, Josiah Tongogara “made his final plea for dropping the name Zapu and Zanu and running simply as the Patriotic Front. The war, he said, had not been about personalities or parties but the removal of discrimination and oppression.
“To a silence that was rare in any of their meetings, Tongogara insisted that it would be ridiculous for Zanu to refuse to consider Nkomo as a leader of the Front after they had sat down and negotiated alongside him for 14 weeks in London. Tongogara knew then that he’d lost. He was more disappointed than angry, and did not resist when he was dispatched – before the meeting which formally took the decision to campaign alone – to guerrilla camps in central Mozambique…”
Again, a question begs to be asked. Was Mugabe a better leader than Nkomo, who by the way was more senior to him in the struggle?
The conditioning of the Zimbabwean people to see politics through the prism of tribal goggles would again be represented by the MDC split of 2005.
In a subliminal perpetuation of the “Nkomo country” and “Mugabe country” paradigm, the breakaway faction of the MDC composed mainly of MPs from the Matabeleland region sought a Shona leader to make them competitive in Mashonaland. The chief qualification for that leader was tribe.
And Tsvangirai, in response, sought a Ndebele deputy to deliver him votes from “Nkomo country”. Again, the outstanding qualification for that deputy being tribe.
Whether these approaches are successful then becomes a question of strategy, resources and viability projection. But it’s inescapable that the plan is a tribal balancing act that ultimately establishes the minority as junior partners in the national political discourse.
National political leadership in Zimbabwe remains the preserve of the Shona majority. A Ndebele leading a political organisation is so readily labelled either a tribalist or a separatist seeking to avenge past wrongs by Mugabe. Nkomo was labelled a terrorist, and those who have come after him are cast as divisionists seeking to derail the freedom train or are simply starved of resources to get their message across. Those from minorities leaning towards the main Shona-led parties are “progressives” who tragically soon discover that their progress has a ceiling. This is the state of our nation we dare not deny.
Other than through war or some act of God, it is difficult to see how a minority leader can win an election in Zimbabwe. It is largely because Mugabe’s doctrine of “Nkomo country” and “Mugabe country” was executed so methodically as to leave the nation permanently divided and condemned to an eternal pursuit of elusive oneness.
Our neighbour, South Africa, has had two Xhosa leaders – Mandela and Mbeki – despite Zulus forming the majority. It is because they understood, to paraphrase Tongogara, that the struggle was not about tribe and personalities but “the removal of discrimination and oppression”.
For the country’s own good and future health, Zimbabweans must make deliberate choices to reverse this calculated segmentation by Robert Mugabe. The onus is no less onerous than on the people of Matabeleland who need to regroup and end their political prostitution for the measly reward of political accommodation.
In the same way that affirmative action is being employed to reverse imbalances in resource allocation between the poor black majority and remnants of the colonial order, Zimbabweans have a collective responsibility to cultivate healthy politics that guarantees opportunities for all who are qualified for the task.
There are no easy solutions, but I am in no doubt that the process should begin with a model of progressive reverse segmentation, moving towards a genuine unification of our national movements.