My current fixation or muse is a writer and deceased African elder whose writings impacted me as a youth and whose observations of life have serious resonance in Zimbabwe’s socio-cultural sphere. As you may know by now, this column’s main area of focus is society, arts and culture. But when you think about it, many issues fall into the crucible that is called culture.
“I believe in the complexity of the human story, and that there’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, ‘this is it’. Always there will be someone who can tell it differently depending on where they are standing . . .” — Chinua Achebe.
These words rang true for me over this past weekend. After attending a Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (Zuj) engagement that brought together main political parties contesting the July 30 general elections at the Bulawayo Press Club. Zanu PF was represented by Joseph Tshuma, MDC-T was represented by Dr. Samkele Hadebe, MDC Alliance was represented by Engineer Francis Mangwendeza, Zapu by Iphithule Maphosa and Mthwakazi Republic Party (MRP) was represented by Ackim Gasela-Mhlanga. The final two members of the panel were Micheal Mhlanga (moderator) and Roderick Fayayo of the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association (BPRA). The idea was to engage media in terms of the parties’ reflections on issues surrounding the elections and electoral processes. Zuj secretary-general Foster Dongozi also solicited feedback from the parties regarding their views on the media’s coverage of pertinent issues. That was the story according to Zuj. From the sublime to the incredulous, each party had a chance to tell its own story. I found the exercise intriguing and revelatory from a cultural standpoint.
The Zim story
Since the 1960s, our country was led by revolutionaries from across the ethnic divide who stood up to confront the colonial government. My own research into our country’s liberation history helped me to formulate an opinion of how the revolution was hijacked.
The mother party was Zapu. It was the “broad church” that had congregants from all walks of life. It had the likes of Josiah Chinamano, Samuel Parirenyatwa, James Chikerema, Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mugabe, Ndabaningi Sithole, Thenjiwe Lesabe to name a few. So what happened?
Intercenine disputes led to its fracturing in 1963. While egos and personal agendas are huge in politics, so is ethnic mobilisation. The Zapu national spokesperson shared his party’s view that the geopolitical interests which tampered with our freedom struggle all the way to Independence and afterwards, are now having a second coming.
In my view, culture provides the context in which all human activity is located. I love the definition of culture by the late Princeton scholar Clifford Geertz, who wrote in his 1973 book, Interpretation of Cultures, that “Culture denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.”
Geertz was especially renowned for evolving a “framework which gives prime attention to the role of symbols in constructing public meaning”, according to one commentator. In my view, for example, the flag is a symbol of Zimbawe’s hard-won self-determination. On another hand, the bond note is a symbol of former president Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF’s intransigence and desperation to retain a semblance of control over a financial system that is marshalled thousands of miles away. Bond notes are a “great big con”.
Art of state
With elections only a few weeks away, a new political dawn must arise. I have been listening to the rhetoric of these players prancing upon the political stage. My ears have itched to hear from a political party with a platform that is built upon inspiring ideas and a compelling vision for this country. It was therefore with eagerness over the weekend that I paid attention to the party representatives as they explained their positions regarding elections.
As I listened, I grasped that all parties believe the elections will not be free and fair.
Context matters in politics and statecraft. A close analysis of the forces that have shaped contemporary African history will reveal that though leaders of liberation movements united from different backgrounds, ethnicity ultimately became the giant albatross around the proverbial neck of the continent. Kenya (Kikuyu vs Luo), Rwanda (Tutsi vs Hutu), Sudan (Arab vs Blacks), Nigeria (Igbos vs Others), Zimbabwe (Ndebele vs Shona, Karanga vs Zezuru vs Manyika). The list goes on. Ethnic mobilisation may not have been the reason for the power struggle in the MDC, but that has been the consequence.
“We cannot trample upon the humanity of others without devaluing our own. The Igbo, always practical, put it concretely in their proverb Onye ji onye n’ani ji onwe ya: “He who will hold another down in the mud must stay in the mud to keep him down.” — Chinua Achebe
The Zanu PF guy blamed all Zimbabwe’s woes on Grace which was a stunning leap in logic amongst other things. I found the MRP’s presentation at our Press Club event interesting. The party’s spokesman spoke about “the people of Matabeleland” and their party’s grievances with marginalisation etc. During question time I asked him if he could unpack for the audience his party’s understanding of the term: ‘the people of Matabeleland’.
His response was essentially that I should know if I am from Matabeleland! But he had missed my point. There was a context to my question and it was from my past interactions with the group. They have spewed what amounts to very dangerous hate speech against other tribal groupings.
The point here is that there has been a real failure to develop most of the country’s regions by the Zanu PF regime. Mthwakazi’s exceptionalism is, however, convenient and a bit too shrill. I would gladly take some of the people of the vocal MRP party on a countrywide tour. But are they interested in Zimbabwe as a country? No. They have their maps. They want to split the country though they will contest in these elections for now.
“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. . .” — Chinua Achebe. By the way, MRP’s Gasela is Nambya. The Nambyas are originally from Masvingo, by the way. Should it also matter that Nambya shares about 75% of its core vocabulary with literary standard Shona by some accounts? Whither Mthwakazi? Whither Zimbabwe?
In the words of esteemed Samukele Hadebe, a self-confessed social democrat, class analysis is what is perhaps required in this our nation. In the end, whether you are Shona or Ndebele matters not when it comes to where you send your children to school.