Zimbabwe: the social hazards of stereotypes

In societies that have evolved together through history and have, over the years developed truly mutual respect, past stereotypes tend to be understood as such and whenever used they are for purely comic purposes. The subjects of the joke(s) do not feel bullied but fully understand the comic effect intended. However, in less socially cohesive societies the problem with stereotypes is that they can easily be mistaken for facts by some sectors of the population, including the stereotyped groups.

When stereotypical views are used as a basis for policy formulation there is a risk of a disproportionate spatial distribution of resources (human and economic) across the population and geographical area. Unchecked, stereotypes can lead to prejudice and marginalisation of some groups within a society. At worst stereotypes and prejudiced views of certain members of the society can be used to great effect by unscrupulous political despots to incite violence or even genocide against specific groups. The holocaust in the early 20th Century and the late 20th Century genocide in Rwanda are perhaps the worst known extremities of unchecked stereotypes and prejudice.

To Zimbabweans the early 1980s are remembered vividly for the Matabeleland genocide code-named Gukurahundi that resulted in tens of thousands of Ndebele young (including the unborn) and old being butchered by the illegal 5th Brigade, an especially trained Shona dominated army unit. All Ndebele people were categorised as dissidents hence a threat to state security, as such they were seen as a legitimate target for the armed North Korea trained 5th Brigade.

This article will examine the possible impact of the classic case of stereotyping in Zimbabwe. The entire Ndebele ethnic minority group is perceived to be less educated in comparison to the Shona ethnic majority. How true or false is this assertion? What are the effects of such stereotypes to the development of the Ndebele as an ethnic group and the Matabeleland region?

The assertion that Ndebele people are intellectually inferior thus, attain fewer qualifications during their compulsory years of education in comparison to Shona people is rather questionable. For a start, there is no objective statistical data to verify that. The mere fact that there are more Shona people who can be classified as educated is a reflection of Zimbabwe’s demography and is by no means indicative of Ndebele people’s academic inferiority. Shona people constitute around 80 percent of the total population while Ndebele people make up about 17 percent.

I believe the two groups (educated Ndebele and educated Shona people) are independent of each other and the fairest analysis will be one looking at each group as a proportion of its ethnic group. No one has, as yet, unequivocally proven that the proportion of learned Ndebele people as a fraction of the whole Ndebele ethnic group is indeed lower than that of Shona people.

An informative survey will be one analysing corresponding cohorts from the two ethnic groups. Selected cohorts will need to be from an identical socioeconomic environment which will mean looking at such indicators as household income and educational level of parents, teacher/pupil ratio, total school hours per week broken into formal lessons and personal study time, the number of qualified teachers teaching their specialist subject, resource base (books and other learning support resources) from both the school and the local area.

The suggested research is complicated by the difficulty in delimiting Ndebele and Shona ethnic groups therefore appropriately allocating individuals to the correct group. That is exactly the problem with the stereotype that Ndebele people are less educated than Shona people: who are we referring to when we talk of Ndebeles? Shona people are clustered into one mass yet in reality the Shona people tend to align themselves with particular clans as opposed to the whole group.

The conflation of academically successful individuals from different Shona groups that at the best of times emphasise their differences seems to be an unfortunate attempt to uphold bigoted ideas about a common foe. If the Shona people were to be classed according to the ethnic group they identify themselves with, which particular Shona group is more educated than Ndebele people? Is it all of them, all of the time, under all conditions? Are we then to believe being born Ndebele predisposes an individual to academic inferiority against any Shona person?

Any suggestion of a genetic factor in the supposed academic inferiority including aversion to formal education among Ndebele people is very subjective, uninformed and a highly politicised irrelevance. It is an unhelpful assertion that has grave consequences for the many less educated Zimbabweans from all ethnic groups. To great effect the stereotype marginalises Ndebele people at the same time pacifying disadvantaged Shona groups while allowing one privileged group of Shona people to appropriate resources at the expense of everyone. The impact to Ndebele people has been a mixture of feeling ranging from indignation to resignation and an acceptance of the status quo.

There is evidence that since independence students from Mashonaland have benefited disproportionately from bursaries from foreign institutions of higher learning. It is convenient to blame the anomaly on the lack of interest in education among Ndebele children but that does not answer the fundamental question about the transparency of the administration of the bursaries. How are the bursaries allocated? The enrolment of students at university and other higher institutions of higher learning has also come under scrutiny from people in Matabeleland who feel marginalised. There have been calls for a quota system to be employed in nurse training colleges, teacher training colleges and the local universities but these have been dismissed by the authorities.

Under the circumstances, the demotivation of people especially in less developed rural areas of Matabeleland is inevitable. These areas create very little if no skilled jobs and the few skilled jobs in the public sector are taken up by Shona people not always based on their superior education but political affiliation.

It has to be noted that ZANU PF has always drawn most of its support from Mashonaland and Shona speaking people while Matabeleland has remained a hub of the opposition. ZANU PF has made a habit of rewarding supporters with jobs in the public sector which invariably puts Ndebele people at a disadvantage. No surprise then that Ndebele people will be disillusioned and leave the country with little qualifications. This might be true for rural areas located on the borders with South Africa and Botswana but not necessarily so in cities and other areas of Matabeleland.

Meanwhile, educated Ndebele people continue to migrate to other regions both within and outside Zimbabwe and chances are that they are replaced by people from Mashonaland. It can be argued that such migration patterns have long-term negative development impact in the region of Matabeleland.

In conclusion, the argument about the academic inferiority of Ndebele people might be a pathological lie that needs intense scientific scrutiny. Any objective analysis will most definitely discredit the generalisation conveniently turned into truth. For purposes of fairness Shona groups need to be viewed as distinct groups that they view themselves to be and not a homogeneous group. The proportion of educated people relative to each group (different Shona groups and the well defined Ndebele group) can then be compared if only to inform the educational strategy of Zimbabwe not to prove who is more stupid.

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