By Michael Hartnack
BACK in the bad old 1950s when the Rhodesian Federation was desperately – and vainly – trying to market the ideal of racial “partnership” as an alternative to Pretori
a’s apartheid, there used to be a vogue, deadly, political insult among white “tea party liberals”.
“You don’t understand Africans!”
A priggish British interviewer threw this in the face of Federal prime minister Roy Welensky who retorted that, considering during his childhood he used to “swim bare-arsed with the picannins” in the Mukuvisi River he might claim some insights. The response was perhaps undignified and demeaning.
Anyone who begins to comprehend African culture knows its soul is not found in beer drinks and sacrifice of goats, followed by miraculous nocturnal roaring of lions (as reported by the ZBH on September 23).
The Zanu PF country-wide “biras” were all a superficial show, an iniquity the Old Testament prophet Isaiah accused the leaders of his day of committing in “the burnt offering and the solemn meeting”.
There are some things a person who is not born into our majority ethnic group – the Shona – soon learns if he has his wits about him. Such as always remembering to greet people properly every day, especially those who perform routine services that risk being taken for granted.
Shona people have natural, exquisite good manners, but there are some differences from European ones. For example, in England a visitor remains standing until offered a seat. With the Shona, it is considered aggressive not to sit down unobtrusively.
Among the Nguni peoples (the Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, Shangaan, Ndebele and the Angoni of Zambia and Malawi), chieftainships devolve from a father to the eldest son of his senior wife.
But the Shona have a system of “collateral succession”. The downside is that a community may be leaderless for years while the rightful heir is defined, amid bitterly divisive disputes. The eventual appointee may be an octogenarian.
Theoretically, the heir may be the man separated by the least number of generations from the ancient ancestor of the clan.
Public opinion plays a big part in determining which family’s “turn” it is to supply a chief, but the final verdict rests with the ancestors, speaking through the spirit mediums.
Hence public opinion and spiritual authorities (including, today, the churches) play a much larger part in Shona social life than in other southern African ethnic groups.
The idea of a parent-child dynasty is thought dangerously elitist. Just as a discredited spirit medium may become estranged from his mudzimu (tutelary spirit), a chief may be deserted by his mhondoro (lion spirit – today, perhaps symbolic rather than supernatural).
Abel Muzorewa was felt to have forfeited his in 1979 when he ordered the bombing of trainee guerillas he himself had recruited.
Blood on the land is inimical to rain and the mhondoro does not devour its own children.
Robert Mugabe was widely thought to have lost his when three key lieutenants died in quick succession three years ago.
The Shona expect a chief to be “one of us” yet “father of his people”, searching for consensus yet in touch with the ancestors. Their idea of supreme kingliness exactly accords with Denmark’s Christian X, donning his old uniform and riding his horse solitarily around Copenhagen during the 1940-45 Nazi occupation.
The king politely returned the salutes of his people and stonily ignored those of the occupiers. When Danish Jews were ordered to wear yellow stars, the king wore one, too.
Listening to and watching the current elite in Zimbabwe, it is impossible not to wonder whether they have become so out of touch they are the ones now “who don’t understand Africans”.
Do they think, like gullible tourists, African culture is just beer drinks and ceremonial feasts (bira), and miraculous roaring of lions in the night?
Have they forgotten it? Or do they believe their 25 years in power have buried old ways and values?
It is grotesque that a Zimbabwean who is not a Shona is asking this.
Perhaps, to quote a Shona proverb, it is a case of Mugoni wepwere ndeasina (It is the childless woman who is – or fancies she is – the expert on child-rearing).
Mugabe seems oblivious to the offence he causes by endless foreign jaunts and by strutting around, when here, with arms folded, in opulently expensive clothing, and surrounded by swarms of heavily armed bodyguards who seek any pretext to intimidate members of the public.
“Who put Mugabe in prison?” one elderly Shona asked, with the typical humour of the people, as the president was shown retreating behind his high walls topped by imported South African razor wire.
Police earlier this month arrested 14 rural people who invaded and began dividing up among themselves the former white-owned farm seized by Chief Fortune Charumbira, president of Mugabe’s council of chiefs, and one of his nominated MPs. This was the second such invasion of the farm.
A chief purloining a private farm is like the captain of a ship reserving a lifeboat for himself. It suggests an incompetent sailor frightened that he cannot bring his ship’s company safe to port. The then Chief Charumbira was among the most prominent allies of Ian Smith’s government in the 1970s.
Interviewed in New York on September 16, Mugabe may have believed his questioner was ignorant of Zimbabwean lore when he spoke of a Ndebele chief who told him: “We have it in our blood to be chiefs – you depend on the people.”
Classic proverbs always have two exactly contradictory meanings, such as Mugoni wepwere ndeasina.
The interviewer, Zimbabwean Michelle Faul, knew only too well what the Ndebele chief was trying to warn of – if a modern, Western-style politician loses the confidence of the voters, he is nothing.
Foreign commentators on the Zimbabwean crisis, whether admiring of or bitterly hostile to the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, have attributed its rise to the influence of white, Western, liberal concepts and economic theories.
The MDC, it is true, did to some extent reflect trade unionists’ abandonment of the old Marxist-Leninist clichés of 1960-1990.
But the MDC also reflected the rise of civil society following the lapse in 1990 of the 25-year state of emergency, and the growth of literacy among previously voiceless people, particularly women. It reflected the spread of Christianity and modern ideas with their concept of the autonomous, individual “soul”.
But the MDC may have done itself a disservice, particularly in South Africa, by failing to emphasise the extent to which its rise reflects popular indignation at the continuing outrage done to hallowed local African tradition. At the same time this happened the people were subjected to appalling misgovernance.
By bringing his sister and nephews to the political forefront, and parading his children in military uniform, the 81-year-old president has roused well-grounded fear that when he finally retires (sometime after 2008, he says – can you believe him?), he will unveil plans to establish a dynasty.
Vice-President Joice Mujuru may then be seen as what many now suspect she is – a mere high profile stopgap to lull into complacency the powerful Zanu PF faction led by her husband and by Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi.
* Michael Hartnack is a veteran foreign correspondent.