Tribalism regularly comes into play in Zimbabwe. Sometimes it is in terms of political rivalry and competition. At other times it is based on a friendly joking relationship between different tribes.
An example was the 1970s internal crisis in Zanu and Zanla. It was allegedly based on “tribal rivalry” between the Manyika and the Karanga. Other aspects included the power play between the traditional nationalist politicians, founders of Zanu in 1963 and the growing military might of Zanla under Josiah Tongogara in the 1970s.
An important issue was Détente, introduced by American Secretary of State, Henry Kissenger, to bring about a pro-Western government in Southern Rhodesia: the exercise was intended to identify the key leadership of such a government.
The rivalry between the older leadership and the growing peasant support became apparent. The gender issue played an important role, as some military leaders were accused of exploiting female freedom fighters.
The fact that some of the Zanla guerrillas had been trained in the Soviet Union, while others had been trained in Tanzania by Chinese trainers was another source of conflict. How leaders are selected or elected was questioned.
“Tribalism” was reflected in the 2016-17 leadership rivalry between the G40, identified as supporting the Zezuru under the late former president Robert Mugabe, and the “Lacoste” group, identified as supporting the Karanga under President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Other important issues arose besides “tribalism”.
The G40 group comprised a younger generation of politicians who had not played a leading role in the liberation struggle, but now sought to take over the leadership of Zanu PF. Leadership was identified as who would control the wealth of the country.
Again the issue of “militarism” versus “democratic elections” received focus. The mass media, particularly television, played a key role in the political play. “Lacoste” was identified with military power, and, indeed, this became decisive when the army played the key role in changing the leadership.
Today, although Zimbabwe claims to be an advanced country, actually only 816 000 Zimbabwean workers are employed in the formal economic system, about 14% of the total work force of 5,9 million adults (figures from Zimstats and USAID, Central Business Registry Inquiry Review Report 2012, Revised 2015, for formal employment figures; and Finmark Trust, FinScope, Medium and Small Scale Survey 2012 for informal employment figures.)
Everyone else does not have a regular wage or a pension scheme. As witnessed when the urban poor were removed from the streets under the Covid-19 lockdown they were forced to return to the communal areas to get food and shelter. They had no security protection other than their relatives, chiefs and headmen in the communal areas. The so-called “modern economy” provided them with nothing. Naturally they were dependent on “tribalism” not only to identify themselves, but for basic social security. Preserving traditional values as expressed through “tribalism” is extremely important for personal survival.
In order to get a better understanding of “tribalism” it is important to identify its main characteristics and why it plays such a critical role in African politics. Ethnicity is evident in politics everywhere, but it receives greater prominence in African politics. Zimbabwe in particular was colonised for over a hundred years.
Cecil John Rhodes’s main aim was to look for gold and diamonds, to boost his personal fortunes, as well as to claim territory on behalf of the British Empire. He named the country after himself, as Southern Rhodesia. He picked up unemployed and destitute Europeans from South Africa and brought them as the first settlers.
He was not interested in the welfare of the African people who had inhabited the area for centuries. He was concerned instead with taking the best agricultural and mineral-based lands and removing the inhabitants to less fertile land. He began this ruthless takeover with the help of the British South African Police (BSAP), which he founded. Settlers were granted huge estates and took cattle either by force or at very cheap prices. Many settlers were destitute and did not pay for the land, but exploitative companies bought thousands of hectares of land at very low prices with a view to future profit.
Rhodes was not interested in assisting and developing the African people. Africans were banished to the “reserves”, later renamed the communal areas. Zimbabwe was officially divided between African and European areas, the best lands for Europeans and the worst lands for Africans.
He ruthlessly killed traditional leaders who openly opposed his take over of the country. He utilised dynamite to kill them in caves. In their place his government appointed new leaders who supported the colonial government. These newly-appointed chiefs were paid by the government and followed the order of the native commissioner.
This colonial division of land fundamentally formed the basis of colonialism: the African areas were divided into small “reserves”.
Each small group was divided from other widely separated small groups. Such small divisions meant that people in each reserve developed kinship relationships, sharing the same leadership. Culture and language became specific to each group. This physical land division is the foundation of “tribalism”.
The colonialists were able to define how land was shared and inherited, claiming deep knowledge of African tradition. Native commissioners who were placed in charge of each area were required to become “experts” in their history, legal systems and culture. The native commissioners wrote many authoritative books still in use today. These native commissioners applied their academic and professional skills on these cultural books.
Many Zimbabwean historians and politicians have followed this established tradition. Yet it is important to be critical about what people believe, and through what authority. African culture and values as defined by a powerful overlord under whom Africans were truly vassals naturally raises questions. It is crucial to examine this history and these values more critically, in the light of future development. History and values must be re-defined. The then recorded history and values were essential to establish colonialism and to enable it to survive.
Rhodes was not interested in providing modern political, educational and economic development for Africans. Instead, Africans were to be self-supporting, based on survivalist agriculture and forming a cheap labour resource for the development of the “white areas”, the mines and towns. Africans who entered “white areas” without passes were arrested and imprisoned.
The word “Shona” was invented by linguist Doke in his 1931 study of African languages, such as Manyika, Ndau, Zezuru and Karanga. His linguistic analysis showed that these languages were basically the same language. He invented the word “Shona” to cover this shared language.
Thus Shona is a linguistic definition rather than an ethnic division. It is important to recognise the linguistic unity. In the same way English is spoken and written by millions of people today. English is a uniting feature, which brings with it many important cultural practices and values. African languages should also become ways of uniting people, rather than dividing them.
“Tribalism” as perpetuated today by politicians aims to win votes from these small and divided groups. It is important for intellectual and cultural leaders of today to research and reflect on how the past should be reviewed to unite rather than to divide Zimbabwe into smaller and smaller mutually hostile divisions.
Cultural leaders should look instead into the institutions and values that will lead to greater unity and mutual understanding. Zimbabwe needs to develop important knowledge, skills and values that can lead to progress.
How are we going to implement such ambitions? Fighting in tiny divisions created by enemy forces is counter-productive. What are the values, skills and knowledge that can bring about such a development?
Chung was a secondary school teacher in the townships (1963-1968); lecturer in polytechnics and university (1968-1975); teacher trainer in the liberation struggle (1976-1979); civil servant (1988-1993); an UN civil servant (1994-2003). These weekly New Horizon articles are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators in Zimbabwe. Email: email@example.com/ cell: +263 772 382 852