Will an independent Matabeleland be the saviour?

In the 31 years of a Shona-dominated government Matabeleland and its people have persistently been the poor cousins dependent on hand-downs from their richer cousins in the north of Zimbabwe. However, the same statement can easily be true of many parts of Zimbabwe. The ZANU PF government has failed the aspirations of many Zimbabweans – young and old alike. It is however, tempting to look at the current scenario as a Shona-Ndebele paradigm both because it is a pretty attractive draw and perhaps because it is largely true. Bulawayo (in Matabeleland) is the second city of Zimbabwe after the capital Harare (in Mashonaland) yet the development gap between the two remains huge.

The political ‘low’ (formation of ZANU PF in 1963) that emerged during another political and human ‘low’ (Ian Smith’s UDI) is undoubtedly the root of all evil in modern-day Zimbabwe’s social, political and economic environment. From its conception, ZANU-PF was an ethnically biased organisation: only set out to advance and protect the interests of the Shona ethnic group and subjugate the Ndebele ethnic population (1979 document).

That policy has been the hallmark of the political and socioeconomic framework of Zimbabwe for the 31 years of some Zimbabweans’ independence. The limited development and at times conscious underdevelopment of Matabeleland has been systematic, open and at times ruthless.

The region is hugely underdeveloped (social and economic) now because the people living there are ethnic Ndebele and happen to be the descendents of people – who before the enactment of modern-day states and political boundaries – fought, defeated, co-opted some Shona speaking people and in the process expanded their territory at a time when ‘survival of the fittest’ was the basic law governing the day’s politics.

The well orchestrated programme of undermining Matabeleland and its people has been a constant source of resentment among Ndebele and other ethnic groups in the region. It is hardly surprising that the voices of dissent coming from Matabeleland young people are increasingly becoming louder.

An increased access to electronic media has made it possible for young people to express their views in safety and to a wider audience across the globe. The dissatisfaction of Mthwakazi young people is mostly and rightly centred on the inequitable distribution of resources, including political power, which has limited the development of young Mthwakazi people in a country already suffering from high levels of unemployment.

There is a myriad of militant socio-political organisations from Matabeleland that are vociferously calling for a separate state. These young Matabeleland people see no future in a Zimbabwe led by a Shona dominated government of ZANU PF thus, want a breakaway state of Mthwakazi that, presumably, will be sympathetic to their problems.

While it is tempting to assume that an Mthwakazi dominated government in an Mthwakazi dominated state will be good for all Mthwakazians, it is difficult to objectively make predictions about how effective an Mthwakazi dominated government in an Mthwakazi state will be. Botswana’s predominantly Tswana government appears to be doing well for its predominantly Tswana citizens yet Swazis are being oppressed by a Swazi King influenced government. On the other hand a multi-ethnic government of a multi-ethnic, multi-racial South Africa happens to be amongst the most democratic and tolerant in Africa today.

The current ZANU PF government has had Matabeleland based individuals in its ranks at one point or the other in its 31 years of unassailable brutality on the region but there has not been any evidence of these individuals being receptive to the concerns of their people. Can we assume the government does not allow them to deal with Matabeleland problems? If indeed that is the case and Mthwakazi parliamentarians are being actively obstructed from performing their duties of serving their constituencies on ethnic grounds, why have we not had any resignations from government by Mthwakazi politicians in protest of injustices perpetrated by the government? What is noticeable is the wealth that these Mthwakazi leaders in ZANU PF have amassed for themselves.

Admittedly a case for a greater and real freedom as well as equal access to all facets of socioeconomic significance for the people of Matabeleland is desirable but contemplating an Mthwakazi only state is probably an extreme though desirable outcome of the effects of prolonged oppression of Mthwakazians. Whether Mthwakazi independence is desirable or not is down to the people of the region as there is no question of such a state’s historical existence.

The people of the region should, however, be wary of spending a significant part of their lives wallowing in victim status; the region has always been crying for local (Matabeleland) investment. There has been limited economic input from locals both as a direct result of disillusionment from the general economic decline in Zimbabwe and because locals have opted to base themselves and their businesses in neighbouring South Africa.

Mthwakazians will have to start organising and mobilising their resources for the development of their region, economically and politically instead of continuously pointing at the obvious inadequacies of ZANU PF in Matabeleland.

It is important to separate the Shona dominated government from the Shona dominated population of Zimbabwe. What is happening in Zimbabwe is a pursuit of ZANU PF policies which may not necessarily be shared by many Shona people though it has to be noted that the MDC-T (a supposedly modern political organisation) is, at its apex, not structurally dissimilar to ZANU PF. As mentioned earlier, the ethnically biased favours (while real) may in practice be only extended to a select ethnic Shona population as evidence points at the general material and otherwise deprivation of the majority of Zimbabweans irrespective of ethnicity and race.

Closer scrutiny of the political system and its socioeconomic effects indicates an apparent socio-political class polarisation. Those associated with powerful politicians have benefitted disproportionately from Zimbabwe’s natural resources and economic opportunities while the talented but less connected individuals have struggled.

Going back to the question of an independent Matabeleland, if it’s only through independence that Ndebeles and all of Mthwakazi will be able to use formal education to transmit their culture and customs; if it is only independence that would afford Mthwakazi the chance to recreate their socioeconomic wellbeing, then independence is what people from the region should not only aspire to but work towards in whatever means necessary. However, it has to be noted that no country exists in a vacuum; political organisations calling for an autonomous Mthwakazi should be mindful of the obligations of the hypothetical Mthwakazi state to the international community.

An Mthwakazi state would have to meet internationally recognised norms and values such as upholding human rights; the expulsion and / or denial of citizenship to residents on the basis of their ethnicity does not qualify as a legitimate means by which a country can protect it’s social, cultural and economic interests.

If a demographic coincidence does not allow for a monoethnic state (as is the case in Matabeleland) then, that kind of state should never even be contemplated by Mthwakazians; everyone who has been living in the region for a reasonable time (defined in reasonable time scales) should be welcome to take up citizenship if they so desired. Whether or not an Mthwakazi independent state will guarantee political and socioeconomic freedoms, protections and solutions for the people in the current Matabeleland region is open to debate.

Matabeleland people have a right to observe historical events significant to their existence and their lives (that includes commemorating victims of Gukurahundi) without interference from the state of Zimbabwe. If it is only through independence that Matabeleland people can be able to celebrate their being, then independence only is the way to go. However, caution has to be thrown against calling for independence for the mere desire of creating an Ndebele dominated state that may end up being a replica of the current Zimbabwe. Assumptions of better governance from an Ndebele dominated government should be avoided; instead checks and balances should be put in place if the rights of all people of Matabeleland are to be protected. Any prospective Mthwakazi state must be a classic modern state celebrating diversity and observing the rights of all its citizens; a state able to interrogate itself with objectivity and not be seen to be discriminating against any particular groups on account of their race or ethnicity or any other variable.

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