Institutional tribalism and Shona privilege is invisible to ethnic Shona people to whom privilege is granted yet very visible to demographic groups who suffer its consequences. Being Shona means being born with access to power and resources; the assumption is that you are the heir and all other demographic groups must settle for secondary roles.
A set of tribally biased socioeconomic, political constructions and cultural values form the base of Zimbabwean systems. As comprehended today, Shona is the default; institutions are not set to serve Mthwakazi but are set to manage Mthwakazi people and serve ethnic Shona people. Change is necessary. We are not anti-Shona; our fight is against invisibility; we seek the power to be equally heard and the ability to participate and share in the decisions of the government which shape our lives.
It is a right and not tribalism to demand a say in the way we are governed. We want political systems and institutions affecting our lives to be the result of our thinking. Even more revealing we want our ethnic Shona brothers and sisters to wake up to the understanding that current institutions give them benefits that other tribes do not enjoy.
We are talking institutional tribalism, a term that describes subtle acts of tribalism, discrimination and bias within societal institutions. Institutional tribalism anchors Shona privilege which, by definition, is an institutional set of benefits granted to a group of people who, by belonging to the Shona tribe, identify with the people who dominate executive roles within Zimbabwean institutions.
Put simply, Shona privilege describes the various ways in which ethnic Shona people benefit from the fact that they are Shona; it is a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by Shona people and no other tribe. There is an argument to say the socio-cultural privileges that accompany being ethnic Shona may not be obvious to the beneficiaries, which makes acknowledging their reality difficult. This may explain why ethnic Shona colleagues are often too quick to dismiss Matabeleland complaints against discrimination as provocation.
It is no wonder Shona-led parties do not prioritise or attempt to enhance their understanding of tribalism, Shona people do not experience its dehumanising consequences; a limited understanding of this evil is arguably convenient for them as it shields their consciences from guilt while they continue to enjoy the benefits from the status quo.
Institutional tribalism is a complex and insidious veil of power that envelops the entirety of the Zimbabwean socio-political system set up four decades ago to benefit ethnic Shona people at the expense of all other tribes. It is a brutal and oppressive socio-political force that bullies its victims into silence; it narrows down the avenues of self-expression as people are threatened into not speaking up and honestly about their feelings in fear of the consequences of doing so.
Shona creed forms the law against which everybody is measured. Other tribes are routinely seen as inferior to ethnic Shona people, unintelligent, uneducated, lazy, dissidents and more. These prejudices continue to define the Zimbabwean socio-political space. Many in Mashonaland have not evolved out of these stupendous ideas; even more troubling is the realisation that the socio-political system has been slower to respond. We have seen the opposition’s communications department’s uncanny disregard of non-Shona speaking citizens.
A blanket of ignorance must not be allowed to shield people from benefitting from unearned privilege. Distancing oneself from Shona privilege without corresponding practical action is a meaningless gesture. Our Shona colleagues need to appreciate how institutional tribalism works; it is an insidious cultural disease that does not care if you are an ethnic Shona person with no hatred for other tribes. One is born into it, they cannot simply give up their privilege to be ‘outside’ the system. You are always in the system.
Furthermore, privilege is not something one chooses to acquire and thus, has the option of not taking. Toxic as it is, Shona privilege is today’s reality, it is something the Zimbabwean systems and institutions extends to ethnic Shona people, and unless ethnic Shona people choose justice over convenience and reconstitute the institutions which extend unearned privileges to them, the institutions will continue to give them these privileges, and Shona people will continue to have privileges denied other tribes.
There is an opportunity for ethnic Shona people to be a part of the system in a way that challenges the status quo. However, no major political party seems prepared to confront Shona privilege. The MDC Alliance – like ZANU PF – strongly supports those who stand against a political reconfiguration that threatens Shona supremacy.
Shona privilege is a lived reality that we must vigorously confront without the fear of being accused of playing the tribe-card. We want to build a country in which all benefit according to ability, and not social coincidence. Demanding for operational changes across Zimbabwean institutions is reasonable and necessary.