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Systemic tribalism and Shona privilege

The problem of Mthwakazi with the independent Zimbabwe lies not on the tribe leading the politics of the country but the politics in the leading tribe. Our problem is the purposeful construction of a systemic structure that grants privileges to ethnic Shona people and withholds same from us.

Our deprivation must be seen as neither accidental phenomena nor a moment of madness but a deliberate, enduring and well-planned political construction of the early 1960s that sort to establish a Shona republic whose aim was to manage Mthwakazi.

The purposeful creation of ethnic Shona privilege

We are clear that the system that places Mthwakazi at a disadvantaged position today is inseparable from ZANU PF. This is a legacy and history of ZANU PF leadership and can only be understood with reference to ZANU PF and ethnic Shona privilege.

While it may not always be the intention of ethnic Shona people to make use of the unearned benefits they have received on the basis of their tribe, the construction of a system in which tribe plays a central role – in our context, one that codifies the superiority of ethnic Shona people over all others − has been in no way accidental or haphazard. Throughout Zimbabwean independence history ethnic Shona power-holders, acting on behalf of their entire tribe, have made decisions that have favoured Shona people as a group and not ethnic Ndebele people.

Understanding of privilege

Ethnic Shona people’s privileges are bestowed prenatally. Shona people cannot not get them, and they cannot give them away, no matter how much they do not want them.

The Oxford Dictionary (online) defines privilege as “A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”

Defining ethnic Shona privilege

We can best define ethnic Shona privilege as an institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to individuals or groups who, on nothing else but tribe alone, are linked to the ethnic Shona people who dominate powerful positions in Zimbabwe’s social, political and economic institutions. In other words, purely on the basis of tribal connectivity, opportunity doors are open to ethnic Shona people that are not open to people from other ethnic groups.

Sadly, ethnic Shona privilege is both a legacy and a cause of tribalism that can be traced back to the formation of ZANU PF in the 1960s; ethnic Shona privilege exists because of historic, enduring tribalism and biases purposely created by the party.

It is reasonable to think that not all ethnic Shona people do enjoy the privileges that come with their tribal identity. Also, ethnic Shona privilege is not the assumption that everything an ethnic Shona person has accomplished is unearned; many successful ethnic Shona people have done so on the back of their hard work. Instead, ethnic Shona privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.

Tribalism and Bias

Tribalism and bias have played an important role in the perpetuation of ethnic privilege; thus, it is critical that we understand what the two terms mean. Tribalism refers to individual (or group) level processes and structures that enable the reproduction of tribal inequality. Systemic tribalism occurs when these structures or processes are carried out by groups with power, such as governments or businesses.

Tribalism differs from bias, which is a conscious or unconscious prejudice against an individual or group based on their identity. In short, tribal bias is a belief while tribalism is what happens when that belief translates into action. For example, an ethnic Shona person might unconsciously or consciously believe that ethnic Ndebele people are more likely to lack academic education or commit violent crime or be dangerous. This is a bias. Tribalism would be when those biases influence the person’s hiring of workers.

The effect of Shona privilege

The damaging impact of ethnic Shona privilege is that it overshadows Mthwakazi interests due to its ability to influence systemic decisions which in turn influence decision-making processes in favour of ethnic Shona people.

Privilege confers opportunities to Shona people but blocks access to everybody else. Access to basic services is not spared; for instance, listening to national radio and TV programme broadcasts in the Shona language is normal for the privileged, but not to those for whom Shona is not the first or main language of communication and who would benefit from listening to programmes in other languages.

Undoing ethnic Shona privilege

When it comes to creating an equal society, one of the biggest hurdles is ethnic Shona people’s lack of interest because privilege is often invisible to those who have it. Ethnic Shona people cannot see what all the fuss is about; they are oblivious to the advantages conferred by their tribal identity.

We have a responsibility to work to create a better socio-political space in which we can live peacefully. What can we do? The first step, of course, is to become clear about the basics of ethnic Shona privilege, what it is and how it works. The second step is to explore ways in which we can work against the tribalism of which Shona privilege is a cornerstone.

We make it clear that Mthwakazi has no problem with difference, we are beneficiaries of diversity and remain comfortable with multiculturalism. Ability and not tribe must be rewarded.

Ethnic Shona people must be honest about the damage of ethnic Shona privilege and avoid being complicit in processes that desensitise brutality against ethnic Ndebele people if Mthwakazi and Mashonaland are to share the same political space in political peace and not pieces.

Change is possible and ethnic Ndebele and Shona people can live in harmony; our ethnic Shona cousins can and must play an active role in dealing with ethnic Shona privilege. It is only when they start listening to us that they will understand what being deprived feels like that genuine change will happen.

For a start, ethnic Shona people need to understand that they are, by systemic creation, a privileged population group and stepping out of their privilege to be ‘outside’ the system is not a realistic option. Privilege is not something one takes, thus has the option to decline. It is something the system gives an individual, and unless they change the institutions which give it to them, they will continue to give it, and the person will continue to have it regardless of their regard to equity. 


We understand ethnic Shona privilege to be the systemic extension to Shona people of comparatively greater access to power and resources than people from other ethnic groups in the same situation. It is both unconsciously enjoyed and consciously perpetuated; it is a combination of seen and unseen, conscious and unconscious acts inseparable from Zimbabwe inequities. Change is possible but it is essential that we face up to the fact that in the Zimbabwean system, if you are born Shona, you are always immersed in the privileges the system bestows you. To fight that, ethnic Shona people face two choices: 1. be part of the system in a way that challenges it or 2. be a part in a way that strengthens the status quo.  


2 responses to “Systemic tribalism and Shona privilege”

  1. No Exhumation of Gukurahundi mass graves.

    Ladies and gentlemen greetings to you all.While we accept that we

    all have to play a part in finding solutions to the plethora of problems we face as a nation under subjugation we should also seek consensus when it comes to Gukurahundi genocide.

    If the Mat Collective entered into agreement with ED for the exhumation and reburiall of his victims this will be sad to say the least. The mass graves as some have correctly pointed out are criminal sites. Exhumation will be tempering with criminal sites . This exercise will indeed criminal as it is against international law. If the Mat Collective table this idea with the number one butcher of our people they will be guilty of collusion in tempering with the evidence of genocide. It will help if the collective comes clean on this.

    Did they propose tempering with evidence of crimes against humanity as a way to bring closure?

    We need an answer from them. The collective has amongst them lawyers. We accept and welcome efforts at finding solutions to our economic and social marginalisation. Efforts to seek assistance for numerous children of victims get national documents, victims get any forms of assistance. But any tempering with crime scenes should be done with full disclosure of who was responsible for we know the gukurahundist will be glad to finally destroys the only evidence that they committee genocide against our people.

    All efforts of the collective to find redress for our numerous problems caused by this illegitimate government are commendable but assisting the government destroy evidence of genocide is criminal. We need to hear them come clean on this. Our people should resist this criminal activity. Our chiefs should be at the forefront to deny access to these sites in their respective areas.

    We need justice first redress later. It’s a crime to deny victims’ survivors documents for citizenship we should not be bullied into allowing perpetrators of genocide to destroy evidence in exchange for citizenship registration documents. No.


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