Elections a distant spectacle for the San

AT a time when the upcoming general elections are a major talking point for the majority of Zimbabweans, for San community in the southern part of Tsholotsho district, Matabeleland North province, the polls are as distant as the horizon.

Nqobani Ndlovu

The Tshwao or San, a marginalised community formally known by the derogatory names Bushmen, abaThwa, aMasili and abaKhwa, said elections are meaningless in view of the systematic neglect and suffering the people have been subjected to since independence.

They were disinterested in election talk during a visit by the Zimbabwe Independent this week, only pleading poverty and hunger, saying the twin evils are their biggest worry not elections.

“What is there to vote for?” asked Siwatshi Moyo, a villager from Mtshina area.

“If they were bringing any change or had brought any change to our livelihoods maybe that could have been an incentive to participate in electoral processes.”

The San in Mtshina village used to reside in the Hwange National Park in the 1920s, surviving on game meat but were moved from their habitat by the colonial government.

About 200 San people live in the village.

The majority of them also do not have any identification documents (IDs) to enable them to vote.

They cite the lack of money for transport to Tsholotsho centre, about 46 kilometres away, to access birth certificates and IDs.

The San in Tsholotsho are found in Sakhile village (ward 1), ward 2 (Mazibulala, Bayane, Manguta, Dlamini, Damulocingo, Sifulasengwe, Sanqinyana, Gulalikabili villages), ward 8 and 10 (Garia and Butabubili village, respectively).

Zimbabwe’s general elections are due in July, but the San said in addition to the reality that most community members do not have the required documents, the upcoming elections offer little or nothing to them, hence they have no reason to vote.

Moyo, who also acts as a village head, added: “We are only worried about survival, as for now hunger and poverty stalk the whole village.

“When we see them (politicians) we know it’s election period, a time when they bring mealie-meal and then disappear.”

Many members of the San community are illiterate — they cannot read and write.

Education is expensive, they say.

Former president Robert Mugabe once said the San are resisting education because they are averse to civilisation, a claim human rights activists say is discriminatory.

The San, once hunter-gatherers, have dismissed that as insensitive.

“We also want our children to know how to read and write, and be able to advance our cause and see a change in our lives.

Maybe we can see the need to vote,” said Motshwa Moyo.

Statistics provided by Davy Ndlovu, the founder of the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust, reveal that there are currently 228 San enrolled into primary and secondary schools in Tsholotsho.

It was only in 2017 that five San students made history by sitting their final Ordinary Level examinations.

More than 15 pupils completed their Grade 7 primary education and progressed to secondary level in 2016.

The majority drop out of school between Grades 3 and 5, and the reasons cited include poverty and lack of money to pay fees.

Jobs available to the San are mainly herding cattle in nearby Ndebele or Kalanga villages where they are mostly paid less than 100 rand per month.

Begging for food is better, they said.

“It’s always sometimes better to beg for food,” Gwava Ndlovu, a villager, said.

Ndlovu said he did not have any identity particulars and will thus not be voting.

His children do not have birth certificates. “How then can I vote? Don’t they want identity particulars?” he asked.

Opposition politicians and Matabeleland pressure groups blamed marginalisation for the San’s disinterest in voting processes.

“The San and the entire Matabeleland is marginalised to an extent that they no longer see the relevance of voting,” said Mbuso Fuzwayo, the co-ordinator of the Ibhetshu likaZulu pressure group.

“The centralised governance system has failed the region. People of Matabeleland, as in other provinces, must be allowed to control their natural resources.

The San, for example, lose their livestock to wild animals; they get nothing out of the hunting concessions”.

The opposition Zapu party led by former Home Affairs minister Dumiso Dabengwa blamed Zanu PF for failing the San, a charge denied by the ruling party’s Tsholotsho South legislator Zenzo Sibanda.

Sibanda instead shifted the blame to the San, perpetuating stereotyping by describing them as a “weird lot.”

“I fail to understand them sometimes, but what is clear is that you cannot change their culture.

What is happening is that they only want food handouts.

We once donated donkeys to assist them in their subsistence farming activities but they lost them,” Sibanda said in an interview.

“We assist to get them identity particulars to enable them to vote like all other Zimbabweans, but they tend to lose them (IDs), thus the few numbers of them voting.

I don’t know how they lose the IDs.

It must be in their culture, but they are at least trying to change and adapt to modern ways of living.

Just recently, they wrote a letter requesting to have their own area councillor and chief but the problem is that they are few.”

Apart from poverty, the San community bemoaned the continued extinction of their language.

Most San speak Kalanga and Ndebele.

A few old San claimed to still remember the San language but do not use it in their day-to-day interactions.

Schools use Ndebele as the vernacular language of instruction and examination, and Ndebele thus becomes the sole vernacular taught and examined.

“Unfortunately, the Tshwao language has left behind no records, so the loss could be permanent if nothing is done soon to rectify the situation,” says a report titled My Culture, My Pride: Reclaiming the Tjwa Cultural Identity, the San Community by the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust.

While the San languages are disappearing, the majority of the San people have also long lost their right to vote because of failure to access IDs.

“But even the interest is not there, because we have not seen how elections benefit us,” said Siwatshi Moyo.

“No one cares about us.”